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City's homeless campus idea was rushed right past prospective neighbors

Jerzy Shedlock

The public health department for Alaska’s largest city wants 66 acres of prime real estate, beyond the airport and out where Raspberry Road ends and Kincaid Park begins in West Anchorage. The proposal, released Wednesday by Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and the city Department of Health and Human Services, suggests a single campus that envisions housing and access to essential services meant to offer a "hand up."

A housing shortage in Anchorage left the mayor few other options, a spokesperson said Wednesday evening, and the proposal offers Sullivan hopes of solving a complicated issue that's eluded him, his predecessors and countless big city mayors across the nation.

Nearly 65 percent of the homeless people in Alaska reside here in Anchorage, relying on shelters in winter and camps across the city's parks and public spaces during summer months. Sullivan has offered sometimes controversial policy proposals for dealing with the estimated 6,700 homeless who used emergency shelters and other public assistance in 2011, according to the public health department.

Among the proposals being sorted out: 65.59 acres of land for transitional housing and other basic services for Anchorage’s homeless population.

Health and Social Services’ 1,500-page proposal identifies several partners interested in developing the site and its services.

The “hands up” concept, as opposed to handouts for homeless, reportedly addresses three main objectives: affordable housing, workforce development and individual and family wellness.

Unlike other homeless shelters like the Brother Francis Shelter downtown, the proposed West Anchorage homeless campus would provide homeless with a place to transition off the streets. It's intended for “individuals looking to escape or avoid homelessness,” said Britteny Matero, the project point person and a health initiatives manager for the municipality.

The city jumped on the opportunity to use the land for a homeless services site shortly after the U.S. General Services Administration announced its availability. It sent a letter of intent to the grab the land, got a response in mid-April and began “rapidly writing up” the proposal, which the department submitted in early August, Matero said.

DHSS isn’t the sole applicant for the land, and there is currently no timeline for the project, or idea as to whether it will come to fruition. But if the Municipality of Anchorage gets the deed for the 65 or so acres, the first phase of the project is required to be up and running within 36 months. Matero said simply acquiring the deed will take a fair amount of time. Ultimately, it will take a few years to complete the potential homeless center.

Community councils around Raspberry Road -- located near the neighborhoods of Jewel Lake and Spenard -- were not contacted prior to the proposal’s submission. Instead, project leads looked at the West Anchorage District Plan and reports done by Mayor Sullivan’s Homeless Leadership Team and the Mayor’s Kitchen Cabinet, two groups formed under his administration to address chronic homelessness. The West Anchorage plan includes proposals for airport expansion and park space. Residents expressed worries about noise and the destruction of green space due to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport expansion, a persistently sore subject for the area’s homeowners.

The city incorporated those concerns into the Raspberry Court proposal. “We intend to keep a fair amount of green space, preserve existing trail systems ... make sure the drive toward Kincaid is as natural as possible,” Matero said.

If the city acquires the land, public outreach will take place, she added.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @jerzyms