The cold-weather practice of opening overnight homeless shelters at Anchorage downtown social service agencies may soon become year-round for the next two years.
Officials in the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz hope that opening more shelter during warm weather will curb illegal camping and direct the city's homeless population toward social workers and permanent housing.
The ordinance that allows the extension of the city's cold-weather program is expected to be introduced to the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday. It cites "critical health and safety issues" in permitting the emergency shelters.
In a memo to the Assembly, city homeless coordinator Nancy Burke said the camps increased the risks of wildfire and disease. Strep infections and tuberculosis broke out in Anchorage's homeless community this year.
The cold-weather shelter program ended May 1, leaving as many as 100 people in need of a place to stay, according to Burke's memo.
In an interview, Burke acknowledged that officials didn't act soon enough.
"We realized probably a little late that we really need to try to keep this going through the summer," Burke said.
Anchorage's cold-weather shelter plan, which takes effect when nighttime temperatures drop below 45 degrees, waives land-use and zoning laws to allow people to say overnight in places like churches or soup kitchens. Two nonprofits, Bean's Cafe and the Downtown Soup Kitchen, became temporary overnight shelters for homeless adults this winter.
The shift from winter shelter to illegal camping in Anchorage's parks and greenbelts is as seasonal as snowmelt, but this year it's coinciding with what appears to be a more aggressive push by Anchorage police and city officials to post eviction notices on camps. In 2016, police ordered more than twice as many camps closed than in the prior year. By law, campers have about two weeks after the posting date to gather belongings before the city can clear the camp of belongings even though camping in city parks is illegal.
At the same time, the Berkowitz administration, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness and other social services agencies are embarking on an effort to track the city's most vulnerable homeless and move them into housing and other services.
In her memo, Burke indicated that dispersing people from the homeless shelter hurts those coordination efforts.
The new ordinance, by opening the shelters for only two years, buys the city more time to get people to housing referrals, Burke said.
On Thursday, more than 100 people were hanging out in the parking lot between Bean's Cafe, the downtown soup kitchen, and Brother Francis Shelter, the city's largest homeless shelter.
Until last week, James P. Brown, 47, was among the handful of people sleeping on mats and cots in the kitchen area at Bean's Cafe, which opened up as an overflow cold-weather shelter. On May 1, he moved to the Brother Francis Shelter.
"We all knew it was coming," said Brown, standing near the kitchen area at Bean's Cafe on Thursday. "It was a winter gig."
Until now, Brown said he'd avoided the much-larger Brother Francis Shelter, run by Catholic Social Services. At Bean's Cafe, which had capacity for 75 adults, it was mellower and calmer, Brown said.
Brown has been homeless since December. He hoped to get a commercial fishing job, but that's fallen through. For now, he's volunteering in the kitchen as part of a workforce-development program the nonprofit launched last year.
He's always been able to avoid sleeping outside. It's not him, he said.
Near where people were getting their mail, Tony Nickolie, 50, nodded his head toward the parking lot.
"There's a lot of people out here who want to come back in," Nickolie said.
But Nickolie isn't necessarily one of them. He's been homeless for four years. He avoids the shelters. On Wednesday night, he slept on a street near downtown.
If someone offered him an apartment, he said, he wouldn't take it.
"I would like to move around and avoid staying in one place," Nickolie said.
That's the type of attitude the Berkowitz administration wants to target, according to Burke.
Burke said the administration, police and social workers are trying to send the message: You can sleep outside, but not in neighborhoods, where people live.
"There are plenty of places around the state where you can just live out in the woods. Lots of people come to Alaska for that reason," Burke said.
But, she added: "The police are going to be engaging you here. We are going to be moving you from street corners and camps."
She said the administration and social services agencies can help people plan. At least for now, though, the idea is to direct anyone who's homeless to the downtown shelters.
Concentrating the city's homeless population along Third and Fourth avenues, even as part of a long-term solution, causes varying degrees of consternation among nearby property owners.
Next door to the Brother Francis Shelter, the owner of Grubstake Auction Co., Ron Alleva, has long been an adversary of the expanding social service facilities near his property. At public meetings and in a 2012 lawsuit, Alleva has called the shelters a public nuisance, claiming the social service organizations enable the bad behavior of some of their clients.
Directly across the street from Bean's Cafe, Darl Schaaff takes a more nuanced view. His event-planning business, Art Services North, sits behind a metal barbed-wire fence, in a warehouse brimming with party props and decorations — totem poles carved out of Styrofoam, a small model plane, paper flowers, chandeliers, linens, suits of armor and a slot machine.
Schaaff said he's noticed a considerable increase in people visiting the shelter in recent years. But no one has really caused problems, Schaaff said, a fact perhaps helped by the barbed-wire fence.
On Thursday, about a dozen people sat along the fence or on the curb of the sidewalk. One man was spread out on cardboard and wrapped in a sleeping bag.
Inside Art Services North, Schaaff and his co-workers were gearing up for weekend events — including a big Saturday night gala fundraiser for Catholic Social Services, which runs the Brother Francis Shelter.
Schaaff said he's supportive of what the social service agencies do, and he's not opposed to the hours being extended.
At the same time, he's not sure what the Berkowitz administration's time-extension request will change.
"Allowing them to stay down here is a little cosmetic to me," Schaaff said. "If the whole reason you're doing it is to keep people from camping and disrupting businesses and other things in other parts of the city … it seems a little hollow."
Schaaff equated expanded shelter space to building a four-lane highway: "The moment you build it, it's obsolete."
The problem is, people don't have permanent places to live, Schaaff said.
Burke, the city homeless coordinator, said she agrees, and the two-year time extension is aimed at finding those permanent homes.
She also pointed to other new initiatives to stop people from becoming homeless in the first place, like placing a social worker at the library, where people at risk of becoming homeless often seek information.