Exploring the Social Problem of Homelessness in Arctic Urban Settings


Funded by UArctic’s north2north program, we travelled from Nuuk, Greenland, to Anchorage, Alaska, in November 2022 to examine homelessness. In Nuuk, we are both involved in researching and working directly with vulnerable and homeless adults in a local outreach program in the form of a soup kitchen.


By Steven Arnfjord, Associate Professor, Head of Centre for Arctic Welfare, Ilisimatusarfik/University of Greenland and Kevin Perry, Associate Professor, Ilisimatusarfik/University of Greenland


Over the previous decades, homelessness in Greenland and Alaska has increasingly become a cause of great concern amongst health and social care professionals. A forthcoming volume on Housing, Homelessness, and Social Policy in the Urban North from the University of Toronto Press focuses exclusively on this topic. 

The research literature identifies critical interconnections between hidden and visible homelessness. For example, the consequences of urbanisation and centralisation in northern towns reveal chronic housing shortages. Moreover, there needs to be more affordable housing and plans to build such housing or alternatives. 

Why Alaska and Anchorage?

Inspired by reading about Alaska and Anchorage and homelessness and collaborating with authors in the forthcoming book, we wanted to look at the service providers in a context with similar Arctic weather conditions. First and foremost, we were curious to learn how homeless people use and utilise the public spaces around Anchorage. Secondly, to gain inspiration, we wanted to learn about the services dedicated to tackling homelessness. Finally, we wanted to connect with researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) to share experiences and explore the possibilities for future collaboration.  

COVID-19 delayed our planned trip to Anchorage in 2020 until November 2022. Before departure, we planned to meet relevant actors in Anchorage (e.g. homelessness networks and non-profit organisations). We also arranged to do some guest teaching while in Anchorage. In all this, the faculty at UAA was supportive and helpful with logistics and establishing connections.

Major Differences

Anchorage is a municipality located within the traditional homelands of the Dena’ina Athabascan people. The municipality covers almost 5,200 km2 and has a population of over 295,000. Nuuk is the capital city of Greenland and has nearly 20,000 inhabitants. Nuuk is also the largest city in Greenland, located in the encatchment area of Sermersooq Municipality, with 24,000 inhabitants and a total area of 635,600 km2. The most profound difference between Anchorage and Nuuk concerns social welfare and protection. The crucial difference derives from different ways of thinking, attitudes, and ideologies. In the USA, the system is a public-private mix that relies heavily on government-funded programs. However, private or non-profit actors provide different services. In Anchorage, the private sector and many religious organisations try to tackle homelessness with government and private funding.

In contrast, Greenland has a universal welfare system where primarily the local government provides welfare and social security and is supported by some faith-based organisations concerning provision for the poor and homeless. In Anchorage, there seems to be a general acceptance of the social problem of homelessness. However, what is noticeable is the need for more local government provisions. Anchorage has a network of engaged non-profit organisations (NGOs) and faith-based organisations (FBOs) that provide homeless people with social, health, educational and housing services. Unfortunately, the non-profit area mainly operates with unqualified workers – some receive on-the-job training. Perhaps only employing unqualified workers is a recruitment strategy to decrease costs, or perhaps it is a symptom of a lack of professional job seekers. Nevertheless, the unqualified workers seem committed to their work and do their best with the resources they have.


Our journey to Anchorage has been invaluable. Experiencing homelessness and the various measures tackling it in Anchorage gives us different perspectives to compare with the situation in Nuuk. Furthermore, through the effort of faculty at UAA, we had field trips with different non-profit service providers and policymakers. In our view, you can only thoroughly learn about social problems like homelessness in Arctic urban settings by physically being there. 

During this trip, we built relationships with service providers and fellow scholars at UAA. Consequently, we decided to increase Ilisimatusarfik’s Centre for Arctic Welfare engagement in the UArctic Thematic Network on Social Work. We are also working on smaller scientific outputs in an international collaborative journal. Moreover, we aim to introduce empirical findings from this trip to our students at Ilisimatusarfik. Finally, we are editing video reflection talks about what we learned during our daily field trips in Anchorage – these will become three short online videos. 


Thanks to Diane Hirshberg and the Department of Social Work faculty at UAA for their help and UArctic and the Greenlandic Research Council for the grant.