Inebriate housing proposal spurs hours of talk at hearing

Lisa Demer

People lined up and testified for more than four hours Monday night before the Anchorage Planning and Zoning Commission about a controversial proposal for Anchorage's first big housing program serving homeless alcoholics. The meeting lasted 5 1/2 hours and broke up around midnight.

The commission didn't debate the project or vote on the permit that Rural CAP, a private agency, needs to operate 48 efficiency apartments in the old Red Roof Inn at Fifth Avenue and Karluk Street in Fairview.

Public testimony ended about 11:20 p.m. The commission plans to consider the matter further at a follow-up meeting on Aug. 9, said Toni Jones, commission chairwoman.

Rural CAP calls its new project Karluk Manor. The project is controversial in part because tenants will be able to drink in their apartments.

Backers say Karluk Manor would save the lives of vulnerable people worn down by years of heavy drinking on the street. They say it would bring structure to people who desperately need it, and it should lead to less drinking once people have a warm bed and regular meals. They also say it would save money by easing demands on police, the Community Service Patrol, paramedics and hospitals. And some argue that it's a civil rights issue, because the project would serve people with disabilities, including mental illness and severe alcholism.

Opponents say Fairview and neighboring downtown already have more than their share of programs for the homeless, including the Brother Francis Shelter, Bean's Café and the sleep-off center, and that such a project shouldn't be allowed where homeless already gather. City planners also oppose the project at that location because of concerns about a nearby park, safety amid heavy traffic and the concentration of social services.

Many opponents wore big buttons with a red circle and a slash through the words "Karluk Manor."

Supporters plastered on stickers backing Housing First, in which housing itself is considered a form of therapy.

Some commissioners seemed particularly interested in whether such a project should operate in a known gathering area for homeless alcoholics, or whether it would be more successful in a different part of town. They heard strong opinions on both sides.

Sharon Chamard, president of the Fairview Community Council, said the head of a model program in Seattle told her it wouldn't work if it was in a neighborhood that already attracted large numbers of homeless alcoholics. The community council voted against the project.

Others say homeless inebriates are already in Fairview and that the project would get them off the streets.

Monday's hearing drew a couple of hundred people, including some connected with Homeward Bound, a program for homeless alcoholics that Rural CAP already runs in Mountain View but where drinking is against the rules.

Many stood in the back of the meeting chambers. By 10 p.m., three-and-a-half hours into the meeting, the crowd had thinned to a few dozen.

Laura Setuk, 24, told the commission she's an alcoholic and homeless, and is getting help now at Homeward Bound. She said not everyone can stop drinking and urged support for the project. She asked people in the audience to stand up if they supported Karluk Manor. A great majority did.

George Brown, owner of the Lucky Wishbone restaurant across Fifth Avenue from the proposed Karluk Manor, told the commission that inebriates already leave trash in the neighborhood and disturb his restaurant customers. Lucky Wishbone will be most affected if Karluk Manor is allowed, he said. He urged the commission to turn down the permit.

But Karin Gustafson told the commission she lives just a block from the Karluk Manor site -- and supports the project. Homeless alcoholics are already in the neighborhood and in the Fairview Lions Park that she frequents with her grandchildren. The project would help get them off the street, she said.

David Barney, with the Mountain View Boys and Girls Club, said he expected the project would improve the area, based on Rural CAP's record in Mountain View. Homeward Bound residents keep an eye on the Boys and Girls Club when it's closed, clean up a neighborhood park, and collect the shopping carts left outside by residents without cars who must haul groceries on foot.

"They are good neighbors," Barney said.

Tim Potter, a planner with engineering firm Dowl HKM who represented Rural CAP before the commission, said the location may not be perfect, but it's not bad because Karluk Street is a designated pedestrian corridor. That is important because none of the tenants will have cars, he said. Pottercontinued answering questions from the commission until it adjourned at about midnight.

The project meets the requirements of the city's comprehensive plan and the new city ordinance setting criteria for "severe alcohol dependent housing," except for its proximity to the Fairview Lions Park, Potter told the commission. The commission can grant an exemption to the requirement that the facility be at least 500 feet from a park, he said. Most of the park is beyond that distance and in any case Rural CAP has already adopted it.

Rural CAP has been awarded $3.5 million in state housing grants to cover the purchase of the Red Roof Inn and renovation costs, and to help run it for three years. But it won't get the money unless the commission awards a conditional-use permit.

Over the last 14 months, at least 23 homeless people or those familiar with life on the streets have died in city parks, greenbelts, roads and patches of woods.

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