City, advocates plan outreach efforts after withdrawal of Raspberry Court homeless housing plan

Nathaniel Herz

The city's proposal for a housing and services center near Kincaid Park for the homeless generated strident opposition at the Sand Lake Community Council this month.

Some people arrived with signs that read "Save our land!" Others worried that chronic alcoholics could end up wandering the trails at Kincaid Park. One woman compared the planned facilities to Alcatraz.

To the relief of many of the 200 people in attendance, Mayor Dan Sullivan announced at the meeting that his administration had decided against pursuing the project, which it was calling Raspberry Court.

Based in part on the backlash, officials and advocates are planning new outreach and education efforts to help demonstrate that such projects can be built without the dramatic impacts that were feared for Sand Lake. They acknowledge, however, that it will take work before people will accept a Raspberry Court in their backyards.

"We will use this to see if we can drive the conversation, and maybe move the norm," said Jeff Jessee, chief executive of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which had joined the city's proposal. "The mentality of this community has to change from, 'How do we get these people out of our neighborhood?' to, 'How do we peacefully coexist with these people in Anchorage?' "

Even if the city's proposal is off the table, there's still a need for the facilities and services that would have been offered by Raspberry Court.

In 2011, more than 6,500 homeless people used emergency shelters or transitional housing in Anchorage, with 766 characterized as "chronically homeless," according to the city.

Nearly 200 homeless people could have been housed at Raspberry Court, had it been completed as planned. Sullivan had said at the community council meeting that the project's price tag could have been as high as $80 million over 10 years, though Jessee maintained that initial costs would have been lower and manageable.

The campus also would have replaced drug-abuse treatment programs currently housed at the dilapidated Clitheroe Center near Ted Stevens International Airport. Already, Anchorage has 40 fewer treatment slots than it needs, said Britteny Matero, a manager at the city's Department of Health and Human Services who led development of the Raspberry Court proposal.

"That's an ongoing conversation and an ongoing search that continues to happen," she said.

One of the major hurdles for projects like Raspberry Court is that many potential neighbors don't have a good understanding of who would be living there and how the facilities would be run, said Darrel Hess, the city ombudsman and its former coordinator for homeless issues.

He said he was "appalled" with the comment that had referenced Alcatraz -- implying a parallel between homeless people and prisoners locked away on an island.

"You're comparing them to a top federal penitentiary for some of the most dangerous criminals in history," he said. In fact, a large proportion of homeless people ultimately end up being "productive members of society," Hess said.

"It all goes back to how our society has stigmatized homelessness," he said. "They're just like me or you -- they could be me or you."

Dan Burgess, president of the Sand Lake Community Council, estimated that he received 100 emails about Raspberry Court in the 12 days between the unveiling of the project and Sullivan's announcement that it was withdrawn.

"And I would say 98 percent of them were: 'Absolutely not in my backyard,' " he said.

Burgess said that in the days after the initial announcement he came to think that Raspberry Court -- described by the city as a "hands-up" approach, with services like job training provided on location rather than a "handout" -- "had the potential of being something pretty nifty."

But the project was still in a conceptual phase, and Sand Lake residents had "all these other questions that were not and could not yet be clearly laid out," Burgess added. That led to some "overwhelming fears," Burgess said -- that homeless people would use Raspberry Court as a gateway to move into Kincaid Park, for example -- but also some more rational ones.

The project bordered a residential subdivision to the southeast, Country Lane Estates, though the city's proposal included a wooded buffer between the two areas and at least 450 feet between any proposed new buildings and the property boundary.

"You are still affecting that housing area. You are still affecting that property value. You are still putting something next to a park that isn't a park," Burgess said. With more information, he added, "it still would have been an issue. I just don't think it would have been quite as much."

Melinda Freemon, a spokeswoman for Karluk Manor, a former motel just east of downtown that houses homeless alcoholics, said that she would have "absolutely no problem" if similar projects were planned close to her own home.

"They are well managed, they are well operated, and they comply with many, many regulations," she said.

Still, it takes time and effort to get Anchorage residents to understand that, Freemon said, adding that she makes as many as 15 presentations a year to community and civic groups.

"I think social change happens over time," she said. "It takes any individual, family, community time to adapt to some of the effective models of housing."

When facilities are proposed to assist homeless people, there's often an element of fear or skepticism among Anchorage residents, said Jessee, the Mental Health Trust Authority's chief executive. That gives providers and advocates little margin for error, he added.

In the past, the Mental Health Trust Authority hid its efforts with another organization to acquire the property for Karluk Manor until it had been secured. If word had gotten out beforehand, Jessee added, "I guarantee you that project would have been stopped."

"Right now, there's almost no path to success," he said. If neighbors find out too early, "they stop you before you can ever get the site, and you don't have answers to all their questions. If you wait too long, they accuse you of: 'Well, it's a done deal.' "

The city does not have any guiding principles for where such projects should go, though it considers things like zoning and potential environmental problems, said Matero, the city official.

The scarcity of buildable land in Anchorage, she added, means that the list of potential sites is already short -- before considering permitting and community support or opposition.

Even before the Raspberry Court proposal became public, Assembly Chairman Ernie Hall said he had been talking with local groups like NeighborWorks and Cook Inlet Housing Authority about how to engage people in conversations about homelessness without the discussions being tied to any particular proposal.

Education, he said, could help smooth the path for future projects.

Hall is pushing forward with those plans, and Jessee said he wants the Mental Health Trust Authority involved as well.

"What I'm hoping we can do is educate the community to understand the needs that these people have got," Hall said. "These people aren't lepers. It's like, OK, you've been given a title, and you're no longer fit to be a part of society. And that really, really bothers me. We have to look out for each other, and I see us moving more and more away from that."

Hall said he was frustrated to see the huge turnout to the Sand Lake Community Council meeting about the Raspberry Court project when typical gatherings draw no more than a couple dozen people.

Residents cited the West Anchorage District Plan in their opposition to Raspberry Court, Hall added, despite the fact that few of the critics had actually volunteered to help with that plan's development.

"Join the conversation," he said. "We've got to come up with a way to get some low-income housing in our community, and figure out ways that we can get over some of the hurdles that's making it too costly."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.