My company’s office building is located in the heart of downtown Anchorage. This shimmering, golden beacon of American capitalism seems to cast a shadow over the Downtown Transit Center and its transient residents. Many are drunk and high; many are homeless and hopeless. Some even sell their bodies either for a quick fix or as a means of survival. They spend their dark days on the cold streets of Anchorage.
Now that the sun is starting to come out for more than just a few hours, I’ve started taking walks during my lunch break like I used to during my summer internship. What amazes me is that the Transit Center’s population during the winter is nearly the same as the summer. Except now, the Transit Center is used as a brief respite of warmth before chasing the rest of a nomadic day.
It’s worth noting that a staggering percentage of these transients are Alaska natives and their descendants. These people are trying to assimilate into American society, but despite living in the second wealthiest state in the US, can find virtually no economic opportunities here for them. It’s easy to point to cultural differences as an explanation for the rampant violence, substance abuse, and self-destructive tendencies, but in reality, like most things in America, it all comes down to money. Naturally, oil and gas is the primary industry here, which requires a great deal of education and specialization. People like me are brought in from the outside to fill these white-collar opportunities. A strong upper class is created, while the rest are detained to a life of abject poverty in a state with an exceedingly high cost of living.
Social change is a process that takes a significant amount of time and pressure, much like the geologic processes that lead to the formation of oil. Major production began in Alaska in the late 1970s, and an entire generation has already come to know degrading impoverishment of Alaska’s great economic divide. My company has made substantial donations towards helping the natives, but the American notion of throwing money at a problem fails to be a viable solution in this case.
This past May on one of the first days of my summer internship, a stranger in the elevator warned me about the transients. Using derogatory terms, he implied that these natives are a worthless people. Why can’t they just act right, he wondered aloud. I remember being horrified. To think that in the year 2013 in the United States the notion of second-class citizens could still exist was disgusting to me. Until that point I knew nothing about the Alaska natives or the social issues that plague them, and I suspect that most people simply don’t either.
I often see people go out of their way, often by walking on the other side of the street, to avoid making any sort of contact with the transients when they pass by them on their way for coffee or lunch, and I think that’s a significant part of the problem. Rather than politely denying their requests or even acknowledging their existence, it’s easier to just avoid them altogether, which is simply dehumanizing. The transients are long forgotten as employees walk past them to the parking lot. Downtown isn’t our home.
During my internship, I didn’t have a car. I had one more semester awaiting me in Texas, and I would have to pay tuition, rent, and living expenses completely out of pocket, because I didn’t have enough financial aid to cover my second degree. Despite the sizable checks coming from my work, I had to save every single cent that I could to make ends meet. Without the option of being gouged by a rental car company, I relied on the bus as my sole method of transportation. That’s not to say that I was without privilege. My employee badge allowed me to ride the bus for free.
Whenever a rider would get on the bus, they would either feed money into the designated slot or slide their bus pass across the face of the machine. A loud beep would resonate throughout the bus, signaling their entrance. When I got on the bus, I simply showed the driver my badge and entered, and they would have to manually enter a code. Honestly, I felt guilty about it at first. It was as if it were some underhanded deal. Why should I who could afford the fare ride for free? I received a lot of dirty looks from the patrons as well, I assume because donning my business clothes on the bus was insulting to them. Maybe it’s the same look that button-downs would give someone in their office wearing street clothes. I didn’t see many corporate employees riding the bus, mostly just laborers in tattered work clothes. I grew accustomed to it, because I didn’t have the option to avoid it. Eventually, I became a regular, and the faces all became familiar. Now, when I take my strolls downtown, I see the value in sharing the sidewalk.
On my walk today, I saw a mural that proclaimed that life on the street is a dead end. After that, I saw three young people hitting a crack pipe in a nearby alley. I couldn’t help but think that the message wasn’t lost on them, rather it was worthless to them. It’s easy to talk about change and opportunity, but what can they really do when their future was predestined by the socioeconomic circumstances that they were born into?
Sometimes, we all need to ride the bus. We all need to spend some time at the Transit Center. We need to remember that when the natives approach you asking for change, they don’t just need the money in your pocket.