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We Build Alaska

Turn the car around, Julia: on performative helplessness and the future of Anchorage

Anchorage welcomed a new mayor on July 1. This little animal (along with a majority of the city’s voting public) breathed a long-awaited sigh of relief. But now that the champagne has gone still and the gritty business of running the city is at hand, it’s as good a time as any to call attention to pitfalls that could derail the new administration. Chief among them, in this little animal’s view, are the quiet (or not so quiet) voices pushing what we might call “performative helplessness” when it comes to solving a couple of the city’s most serious problems.

What is performative helplessness? Let’s describe it as the practice of “addressing” a real problem by moving the goalposts, redefining the problem as inherently unsolvable, and engaging in actions designed to showcase the virtuous intentions of the actor, rather than produce real results. In short, it’s the art of trying to look good while accomplishing nothing (or next to it).

A May 9 ADN article by Julia O’Malley, “You can pass through Midtown Anchorage, but you can’t leave its complicated truths behind” provides a textbook example of this phenomenon here in Anchorage. On its face, the article is a tragic and sympathetic portrait of a city rocked by homelessness. But it advances a number of ideas about homelessness that, though masked behind a patina of empathy, are every bit as insidious as those ascribed to members of the last administration. The article was very popular among the political left (aka the new admin’s base), which makes critiquing it feel all the more urgent.

O’Malley starts the article by describing scenes familiar to anyone in Anchorage: intoxicated people lying on street corners, liquor bottles, sleeping bags on sidewalks. “I pray in the car all the time,” O’Malley writes, “but it’s not enough.”

Well, why would it be enough? We all know that “thoughts and prayers” are not solutions to public crises. O’Malley is entitled to her religious beliefs, of course. There’s nothing wrong with praying. But in the context of an op-ed, telling readers about her private prayers only serves one function: illustrating the virtue of the author. This is what we might call a red flag.

And then things start getting a little weird. O’Malley explains that a homeless man at an intersection frequently stares her son while she drives him to soccer practice, frightening him:

“…mumbling into another dimension, he held an unreadable sign on a piece of yellow legal paper. He’d stare right into my son’s eyes through the window. My son began to dread that stretch of road. He told me the man made him feel afraid.”

O’Malley’s reaction to these encounters is to feel shame and upset because… she isn’t doing enough to correct her son’s fearful response. She asks whether she should tell him “it’s not really fear he’s feeling but instead the stark randomness of his own luck.”

Julia: no, it’s really fear. Your child is abso-fucking-lutely right to feel fearful of a disturbed adult regularly leering at him in public. An entire generation of Anchorage children have now grown up associating our city’s public spaces — our streets, sidewalks, trails, and parks — with squalor and unpredictable, intoxicated, unwell people that they need to avoid to keep themselves safe. Yes, of course, context and compassion need to be taught and encouraged. But the fear your son is communicating to you isn’t some four-alarm abandonment of liberal values, it’s survival instinct working as designed in the unsafe world that adults created for him.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” O’Malley says regarding the man frightening her son. The implication here is that nothing else can be done. We — along with O’Malley’s son, apparently — must just accept the unwanted interaction, directing any critique inward at ourselves.

A bit later, O’Malley describes finding herself seated next to then-mayor Dave Bronson on an airplane flight. Bronson, she recounts, says that he wants to solve homelessness, and particularly homelessness that arises from substance abuse. O’Malley writes:

“I told him what I knew: Sobriety comes from inside and the government can’t touch it. Nobody’s written a statute to address heartache, which in many cases goes back generations, and leads people to drink or shoot up or lose touch with reality in a way that keeps them from paying rent, I said.”

Note how O’Malley is siting the goalposts here: homelessness is caused by substance abuse, but the government, she declares, “can’t touch” someone’s sobriety. Homelessness is caused by “heartache” and intergenerational trauma, which the government presumably also isn’t permitted to touch. In other words, homelessness isn’t homelessness, it’s actually a set of conditions that are inherently unfixable.

Is this true? O’Malley is right that these factors contribute to homelessness, but her analysis falls flat when we consider history and context. For example, Anchorage had dramatically fewer people on street corners and virtually zero campers in public parks two decades ago. East Coast cities have far lower rates of visible homelessness than West Coast cities. Alcoholism, heartache, and trauma are neither new nor exclusive to one coast.

There are two big things going on here. First, in Martin v. Boise, the Ninth Circuit (which has jurisdiction over the western US, including Alaska) created substantial confusion about the conditions under which cities could abate homeless encampments. ADN and Alaska’s News Source have repeatedly reported that when camps are abated in Anchorage, homeless individuals often simply refuse shelter. Anchorage policy makers and officials have long warred over how to increase shelter capacity, while maintaining that until they do so, Boise has effectively tied their hands when it comes to broader camp abatement.

Quote by Alexis Johnson

Screenshot from an April 30, 2024 ADN article

Second, Anchorage, like many West Coast cities, has deliberately sabotaged its housing market. Anchorage historian and former Assembly member Charles Wohlforth recently explained that limiting housing in Anchorage was a goal of “progressive” city planners in the 1970s. This mission was enthusiastically and successfully pursued by many of the individuals who shaped the Anchorage we live in today.

Take, for example, influential city planner and former Anchorage Assembly member Shelia Selkregg, who has campaigned for decades against denser multifamily housing. As the director of Community Planning and Development, Selkregg led the effort to create Anchorage’s 2020 Comp Plan, which all but halted the construction of new multifamily housing in Anchorage. At a 2015 Anchorage Assembly meeting, she praised the demolition of the city’s four-plexes (which she blamed for “destabilizing” neighborhoods), argued for the extension of South Addition’s low-density and high-cost land use patterns into Fairview, and sharply criticized “big buildings” over a few stories (quick, someone tell Stockholm that that they’ve destroyed their subarctic city by building “big buildings!“).

Selkregg even made opposition to high-density housing a centerpiece of her failed 2009 mayoral campaign, saying that our city’s dense housing “doesn’t create a sense of neighborhood.”

Thanks in part to Selkregg (among many others, of course), Anchorage is missing thousands of units of affordable housing that were either torn down or went unbuilt. A cruel fact of Anchorage’s homelessness crisis is that even if all of our homeless residents were suddenly mentally stable and wanted to fix their lives, they simply don’t have housing to go to. It doesn’t exist.

O’Malley is surely familiar with Selkregg’s work. Selkregg is O’Malley’s mother. And while O’Malley isn’t responsible for her mom’s behavior, if there is any poetry in O’Malley’s piece it is the unwritten backstory of a mother who helped devastate Anchorage’s affordable housing market, only to find her daughter driving around decades later, consumed by ennui and trying to figure out why there are just so many homeless people now.

O’Malley writes in her article, “My mom says that we get the community we vote for.” The comment is presumably directed at then-mayor Dave Bronson, but this little animal desperately wishes that it were accompanied by some long-overdue self-reflection.

O’Malley closes by recounting an incident in which the wind snatches away a dollar bill she is attempting to hand through her car window to a homeless person on a street corner. She drives off, dejected. This story, obviously intended to be a metaphor for the tragic intractability of homelessness despite our best intentions, is in fact just an example of an attempt to address a big problem with a small and largely symbolic effort, failing, and then giving up.

O’Malley could have put on her hazards, pulled over, and retrieved the bill. She could have driven around the block again. She could have come back later. Even better, she could have donated to one of the many organizations (such as Food Bank of Alaska or the Brother Francis Shelter) that have been at this a long time and know how to use money effectively. Instead, she does nothing except use the event as a (both literally and figuratively) cheap literary device for an op-ed.

It’s hard not to feel that this is a decisive moment for Anchorage. But will it be a turning point or just one more waypoint on a descent into deeper dysfunction? One has only to log onto Alaska Twitter to see a flood of posts declaring that to abate a homeless encampment is to “deny the right of homeless people to exist,” as if anyone’s existence is predicated on living in a squalid environment rife with rape, grotesque violence, gunshots, theft, substance abuse, and death.

The new administration will be told endlessly that it may not, must not, cannot decisively act to solve problems until an unmeetable list of conditions are met. The administration will be encouraged to take meandering and symbolic actions, to throw a few dollars out of the Anchorage treasury and claim that they are “doing everything they can.” They will be told that being empathetic means continuing to tolerate the horror show playing out in our public spaces, that the correct response to seeing a person passed out naked on a midtown sidewalk or injecting fentanyl in town square park is to reflect on ones privilege and continue on with a stiff upper lip.

This is backwards. The inhumane course is the one we’re on now.

Just as O’Malley could have turned her car around, a new admin could turn Anchorage around. The Assembly and mayor’s office are aligned. Boise was recently overturned by the US Supreme Court. Voters have identified homelessness as a top issue and are eager for solutions. Not hollow displays of virtue — solutions. That will probably mean more shelters, more housing, more services, enforcement of our existing laws, institutional care for severely unwell or dangerous individuals, and rigorous, permanent abatement of all encampments in public land. Yes, this would all be difficult, but it’s possible.

As they say, the best time to act was yesterday… the second-best time is today. This little animal hopes for the best.

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Little animal fan club
9 days ago

“Little animal” for mayor!

Old timer
9 days ago

In seriousness, this is the first sane thing I have read about homelessness in a long time. We moved here in 86/87, and it truly saddens me to know that people who have lived here only for a decade or so really have no idea how wonderful our trails and parks used to be. Yes, we did have our problems but you could escape them at least for a time with a walk outside. I truly cannot comprehend how our city says it cannot do anything about the multi-story shanty towns being built in our public spaces. I do not… Read more »

Real_talk
9 days ago

Liberals don’t want to actually solve the homeless problem, they will give a bunch of their friends six figure salaries, lease their other buddies run down hotels for way more than there worth and enrich their crony friends. We don’t need more low income multi family houses. We need mental institutions and rehabilitation facilities. Clearly the west coast is an example of what not to do: California has spent $20 billion over the past five years dedicated to the state’s homelessness crisis, including funneling money toward supporting shelters and subsidizing rent. Still, homelessness grew 6% in 2023 from the year… Read more »

TFloyd
9 days ago
Reply to  Real_talk

Perhaps you should now write about what the right wingers are doing to stop this problem.

TFloyd
8 days ago
Reply to  TFloyd

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Morme
9 days ago
Reply to  Real_talk

She said this right in the start our new communist, mayor, terrorist, supporting multi gender, affirming DEI initiative racist is the best thing for our state. Obviously, the city is already broke so she’s gonna spend more money. To come up with plans from out-of-state people, out of state firms, out of state planning, committees for advice for an issues she has dealt with for what 7 years now.
Because Alaskans are incapable of creative problem-solving ourselves seems like he was pretty on point in his statement.

Please Park Prettily
7 days ago
Reply to  Morme

Please explain how Mayor LaFrance is a communist–if you know the definition of that word–and how she is a terrorist.

OMalleyTruther
9 days ago

Good ol’ Julia is and has always been a pathetic whiner. Funny of her to go on about sobriety given her own habits and past conduct.

frequencykenny
9 days ago
Reply to  OMalleyTruther

She writes beautifully but is usually wrong.

erak
8 days ago
Reply to  frequencykenny

Completely agree. She is interesting but usually wrong. I have always thought she and Craig Medred would get a lot of eyeballs with a point counterpoint arrangement. (In an unrelated news story, ADN just announced it is moving to 2 days of print news. No need to create interesting news. No one finds it interesting.) As for the homelessness, chance of new mayor making things better is remote. The homeless are conduits for hiring Leftists. A fundamental difference between Left and Right is the later is interested in eliminating it while the former wants to monetize it. Feliz and Meg… Read more »

Actual credentialed journalist (retired)
4 days ago
Reply to  erak

She’s not even a good writer. She says in 5,000 words what an actually good writer can say in 500. Puffy, needlessly and unskillfully lyrical, overwritten – take your pick. She might be great with a brutally honest editor, but somehow they’re all afraid of her. I don’t get it.

Mongo
9 days ago

Anchorage is the dumping ground of rural Alaska’s drunken exiles.

frequencykenny
9 days ago
Reply to  Mongo

Sort of. They come in for medical treatment and then get too drunk to go home. The blue ticket thing is a myth.

Reggie Taylor
9 days ago
Reply to  Mongo

“………One has only to log onto Alaska Twitter to see a flood of posts declaring that to abate a homeless encampment is to “deny the right of homeless people to exist………?
The muni, and the law, just dictates that they can’t exist on that spot. But as this issue continues to be batted back and forth by the political, legal, and ideological classes, I’ve come to realize that those spots are just fine for me. The key is to keep these poor folks in Anchorage and out of the Valley………which is identical to the strategy in the Bush.

Please Park Prettily
9 days ago

The Landmine continues to be the go-to source for incel woman bashing.

Tom McGrath
9 days ago

Julia O’Malley is always concerned about something but it was her mother that screwed up the Anchorage 2020 plan and it was her liberal grandmother who mapped out Anchorage, as we know it in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It is too much government brought about by liberal families like hers. anchorage has 12,000 acres of parkland, much of which has never been used. Put a lot of that land on the market will drive down real estate prices. cut the red tape and regulations so that it easier to build. Let people build what they want. Weidner apartments… Read more »

It’s Not Too Late For Anchorage
9 days ago
Reply to  Tom McGrath

you’re wealthy and connected, Tom, maybe you should put some of your weight behind pro-housing policies. Maybe contact the Mayor with some ideas on easing land use.

So close yet so very far
9 days ago
Reply to  Tom McGrath

Landmine/Jeff should really do an entire piece about Selkregg, in the style of their Holtan Hills coverage. You might start by looking at what Selkregg actually did to the 2020 plan to make housing unaffordable. It was a LOT. She is also on record opposing specific projects, particularly projects that would put apartments near her own SFR home. By the way, the reason she wanted to extend South Addition into Fairview is that she lives very close to the border between the two neighborhoods. Textbook NIMBY who has been getting away with it for decades because the press is reluctant… Read more »

CAM Holloway
9 days ago

Wow. Somebody doesn’t like Julia. Took two months to research, draft and revise this hit piece—then hides behind a pseudonym. (Pseudonyms are fine when discussing what pairs of Carhartts to wear to the PAC, but when it comes to weighty policy matters and character assassination, a bit of forthrightness is in order!) At least Julia has the courage to put her name and reputation together with her thinking and ideals. Homelessness (or, being in the state of being unhoused, if you like) is a majorly complex situation. I don’t think anyone has patented the failsafe fix-all. I don’t have the… Read more »

Publius
9 days ago
Reply to  CAM Holloway

The practice of individuals using pseudonyms to discuss policy is SO old and thoroughly entrenched into the core of America’s DNA that it’s wild you can hold your head up high and make that claim. Anonymity in America didn’t begin with rants about what clothes were gauche or not on twitter. Might be worth your time to go check out the history surrounding the Federalist Papers.

Also, somebody can LIKE a person and still think their ideas are wrong. These things are not mutually exclusive. Maybe they do like her – but think her performative virtue is a bit….much.

So close yet so very far
9 days ago
Reply to  CAM Holloway

So every critique of a person’s writing is a “hit piece?” There isn’t a single criticism in this op-ed of Julia herself. It is entirely a criticism of her absurd self-promoting article. Writing is fair game.

Adn@adn.com
9 days ago

Homeless is a crime. Lets start enforcing laws like no overnigbt camping, right of way violations, public intoxication, littering, nudity, defecation, trespassing, and open containers.

Lock these people up.

Please Park Prettily
9 days ago
Reply to  Adn@adn.com

Where? Our jails and prisons are full. Neither the state nor the city can hire and keep enough officers. Homelessness is not a crime. You’re a troglodyte.

So many kooks
8 days ago

Whatever that means.

Reopen the Sutton prison. Easy.

#liberalismisadisease

Please Park Prettily
7 days ago
Reply to  So many kooks

The state re-opened the Sutton prison 3 years ago. Even if we had more prison space, we don’t imprison people for homelessness, which, contrary to what Adn@adn.com opines, is not a crime, nor to we imprison people for public intoxication, littering, etcetera, which are low-level violations. It’s not about liberalism being a disease, SMK, it’s about complex issues, involving fellow Alaskans, that aren’t solved by bumper sticker, simplistic responses.

Kooks in the mix
7 days ago

Yeah uh huh.

The prison is open. And while you claim those crimes are low level, when they are repeat offenders then yeah- that is where they end up.

Compassion went out here 5 years ago. Same stuff, different year. Same liberal policies that improve NOTHING.

But yeah. You’re not from here I am guessing.

Please Park Prettily
7 days ago

Sounds like compassion went out for/of you more than five years ago. Thank you for acknowledging your error regarding the prison already being open. Clearly, admitting that you’re wrong is difficult for you. I’ll acknowledge that repeat offenders can (and should) be imprisoned, but that’s only for serious crimes, e.g. violence, drunk driving while license revoked, etc., not for the issues that Adn@adn.com listed, to which you and I are responding, such as littering. No matter how many times you littered, neither the state nor the muni would jail you. You don’t explain how being from here matters. Sounds like… Read more »

You're still a KOOK
7 days ago

It does matter. If you have indeed been here 53 years, you would know. The argument is simple. JAIL THESE SCOFFLAWS. If you cannot (or choose not to) see the DAILY damage done to our public lands by these idiots, you are either a real LIB or blind. Or both. Compassion has nothing to do with this. We TRIED that. For 15 years. Now… let’s clean up this town and jail these idiots who are reckless with fire and poop. Who do not care about taxpayers… who USE our resources while contributing NOTHING. I understand you might be a bleeding… Read more »

Mr. Redd
8 days ago
Reply to  Adn@adn.com

I agree. When someone habitually breaks the law they should be locked up. You or I couldn’t repeatedly break the law and be ignored. The city needs to stop supporting lawlessness. Sutton had a prison. Fill it up if necessary to take back the city.

Please Park Prettily
7 days ago
Reply to  Mr. Redd

The state re-opened the Sutton prison 3 years ago. 

Billy Pilgrim
9 days ago

Old enough to remember when Jeff absolutely raged against anonymous criticism. Just a couple years ago, he offered $1,000 for the true identity of “The Blue Alaskan”, saying “I am arguing that the anonymous operation of a news outlet is irresponsible and unethical.” Guess that goes out the window when the target is a Democrat.

To quote Jeff’s often repeated twitter mantra – “Cool story, whoever you are.”

Please Park Prettily
9 days ago
Reply to  Billy Pilgrim

Well said, Billy. Maybe the difference is that the Landmine isn’t a news outlet. It’s a gossip and name-calling rag that occasionally performs some fine journalism, the best example of which (that comes to mind) was their Clark Penny series. But such articles, unfortunately, are rare, as Jeff clearly relishes his juvenalia, as demonstrated by his recent return to his narcissistic Speedo photos.

Please Park Prettily
9 days ago

And, as for unethical, Jeff has run for legislative office while operating his “news outlet,” a clear violation of journalism ethics.

So close yet so very far
9 days ago

Now that is actually funny. I doubt Jeff is Spenaardvark though, he clearly does not have a problem putting his name on anything.

Actual credentialed journalist (retired)
4 days ago

He also DEFINITELY couldn’t write anything this coherent.

So close yet so very far
9 days ago
Reply to  Billy Pilgrim

The Spenaardvark is a single columnist, not a news outlet. If the Landmine were run or owned anonymously you would have a point, but it isn’t.

Billy Pilgrim
8 days ago

Really? You’re going with “Anonymous criticism is great, unless it’s self-published, in which case it’s unethical”?

Yeah, I’m sure everyone believes that’s your deeply held conviction, and not something you just made up to excuse Jeff’s double standard. Totally. Keep rolling with that.

So close yet so very far
5 days ago
Reply to  Billy Pilgrim

Pretty much, yeah. Blue Alaskan was actually breaking news and running an entire news outlet (including soliciting money). Totally reasonable to want to know who is behind an entire dark media operation. A single anonymous column is completely different.

Admin
3 days ago
Reply to  Billy Pilgrim

The difference here is you can hold me accountable for things published in the Landmine. The Blue Alaskan was a totally anonymous operation with zero accountability. Hope that helps, chief.

Chef Boyardee
7 days ago

If MRAK is the Pink Slime of Alaska journalism, then Landmine is the Offal.

LIBeralism is not curable
7 days ago
Reply to  Chef Boyardee

Yet you read BOTH. The real rag is ADN.

So close yet so very far
5 days ago
Reply to  Chef Boyardee

Pretty funny analogy. Sensitive folks might turn their noses up at offal but it’s nutritious and tastes amazing when done right. Liver pate is a delicacy for a reason.

floridawoman
7 days ago

The author(s) of this piece claim if the homeless were suddenly (magically) mentally stable….Here lies the big turd in this hit piece. Published stats range from 25-75% of homeless have mental health concerns. Mental illness does not suddenly go away, nor is seldom cured. Though at times, at great expense, can be managed. No where in the solutions mentioned by the author(s) of this hit piece is there an outlined plan, with true cost, to provide mental health services for those in need. API has about 80 beds….you do the math. Eh I’ll do it for you ~$400 million a… Read more »

Akwhitty
6 days ago
Reply to  floridawoman

Give up our PFD?. Flo, I think of you as a barren spinster willing to give away something you don’t own to an entity you have no control over. My family and I will not relinquish our PFD as our property taxes already support the mentally ill and creatents that roam our city.

floridawoman
6 days ago
Reply to  Akwhitty

You have already relinquished the majority of your PFD to fund state government….holding on to that final 1/3rd with clenches fingers won’t stop it from slipping through our fingers.

Edit: I love the lame put downs…attacking women and the mentally ill in such a 3rd grade manner.
please try to step up your name calling game and familiarize yourself with Alaska politics.

John
7 days ago

That’s quite a burden to bear, knowing your mother’s contribution to our community was basically a scam to hike rent prices. Fortunately, shame is the mechanism by which the conscience changes the soul. It changes behavior, changes one’s fate. Shame is painful to experience but that does not mean experiencing it is bad. Shame doesn’t have to be a circle, it can become a path that we walk. Now walk it, Julia.

Please Park Prettily
5 days ago

So, Spenaardvark, will you be publishing an essay in response to Pat Gault’s opinion piece in today’s Daily News, or is Julia your only target?

Allen
5 days ago

Saying that Anchorage has “deliberately sabotaged its housing market” is a huge stretch. No modern private developer builds “affordable” housing, there isn’t enough profit in it. No amount of zoning changes will change this basic economic fact. You can change the rules to allow multi family buildings in single family zones but all you will get is luxury condos or Airbnb’s, you won’t get “affordable” homes or cheap apartments to rent. The only actually affordable housing (by that I mean that a lower- or middle-middle- class income can pay for) that was ever built in this country was by the… Read more »

Actual credentialed journalist (retired)
4 days ago

I have never understood O’Malley’s popularity in any sense, from food columnist to thought leader. She’s a dingbat and not even a very good writer.

ACX Fan
1 day ago

I disliked this article. Heavy on personal attacks, primarily angled towards Julia O’Malley’s apparent failure to propose specific fixes for the homelessness problem. Yet this article proposes no fixes for the homelessness problem, beyond vague (and accusatory) hand-waiving in a YIMBY direction.

I’m all for zoning reform and am a YIMBY myself. But the tone of this article is all off, and reflective of why the rationalist community that aardvark probably associates with doesn’t gain more traction despite having (generally) pretty good ideas.

And, fwiw, zoning reform probably doesn’t fix chronic homelessness as we know it in any meaningful sense…