The Best Western Golden Lion Hotel on the corner of East 36th Avenue and the Seward Highway would be converted into a drug and alcohol treatment center under a proposal from the administration of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
During a meeting of the Anchorage Assembly’s committee on homelessness Wednesday, the mayor’s chief of staff said paperwork to acquire the Golden Lion to expand addiction treatment is being drafted. The building’s purchase would be financed with federal funds from the CARES Act, the national COVID-19 relief program, said Jason Bockenstedt.
“As part of the process that we’ve been going through in looking at with how are we going to use CARES Act money that is going to be coming to the municipality and to make a real substantive change in how we handle homelessness and treatment in the municipality, we have explored the possibility, as we have said publicly a number of times over the past couple of months, of looking at purchasing a number of properties,” said Bockenstedt, in response to a question from Assembly member John Weddleton.
Acquiring new properties for homeless services has taken on a sense of urgency amid the COVID-19 pandemic as the city struggles to find housing for the hundreds who need it. Drug and alcohol treatment, in addition to housing units and shelter, is considered a key element of solving the city’s homelessness problem.
The Golden Lion sits near the Geneva Woods, College Village and Rogers Park neighborhoods. It’s located on a high-traffic corridor, not particularly friendly to pedestrians.
“We are looking at it as a potential treatment center to provide the very needed extra treatment within the municipality. Those are proposals that will be coming forward to assembly in the coming days and we will be debating them over the course of the next month prior the July 14 meeting,” Bockenstedt said.
After the Wednesday meeting concluded, the mayor’s office declined to provide further details about the proposal.
“The Golden Lion discussion is just that at this time — a discussion. We don’t have additional information to share at this time,” said Carolyn Hall, Berkowitz’s communications director.
While details are scarce, the Midtown Community Council already has concerns about the proposal and is trying to schedule an emergency board meeting for next week.
The group has sent a note to the mayor’s office with the message that “you better have a meeting with the Midtown Community Council,” said Ric Davidge, vice president.
“You have heavy hitters in that community and they’re going to go nuts,” Davidge said.
Council president Al Tamagni Sr. said the proposal caught him and others by surprise. The way the city unveiled the proposal, with little public notice, was a “slimy deal,” Tamagni said.
Even if federal money covers the multi-million-dollar cost of buying the hotel, the city will face ongoing operational expenses and the loss of property and bed taxes from the Golden Lion at a time when Anchorage is experiencing a major economic downturn, Tamagni said.
Other parts of town would be more suitable for a drug and alcohol treatment facility, such as city-owned property near the Alaska Native Medical Center campus, he said.
Tod Butler, president of the Tudor Area Community Council, is taking more of a wait-and-see attitude, noting that several public meetings will be held before anything is decided about the Golden Lion. He also cites the current lack of detail about the proposal.
“It’s really fluid so it’s hard to pin down what is real and what is not,” Butler said. “There are a lot of moving parts. It’s hard to make any judgments.”
Chris Constant, an Assembly member who represents Fairview, said he supports the idea of a new drug and alcohol treatment center in Anchorage, especially one not located in his district. Fairview is home to Brother Francis Shelter, Bean’s Café and other programs serving people experiencing homelessness.
“Clearly we need more therapeutic places. We need to broaden where we provide services to decompress” eastern downtown and Fairview neighborhoods, Constant said.
Anchorage’s official homeless population includes about 1,100 people who stay in shelters or live outside, as tracked through the Point in Time count. Before COVID-19, more than 7,500 were thought to be semi-homeless or living on the edge, a number expected to rise because of economic hardships the pandemic has caused. Up to 8,000 people access homeless services in Anchorage every year, according to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
Many people without permanent shelter, or those choosing to live outdoors, experience alcohol and drug misuse disorders, illnesses that can cause or result from homelessness.
The city’s goal of creating a new alcohol and drug treatment facility is to help relieve some of the suffering related to addiction, help some people move beyond homelessness, and lessen the impacts of drug and alcohol misuse on Anchorage.
“Alcoholism, drug addictions and mental health touch all sectors of society, not just people experiencing homelessness. And while there are few that want treatment centers located in their backyard, there are ways to help so that one neighborhood or area of town does not bear the burden,” said Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Café, a nonprofit which is running a mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena.
The city has a contract with Bean’s Café to run the mass shelter until the end of June with two 30-day extensions. After the contract ends it’s unclear where the city’s homeless residents will go. Because of COVID-19 spacing requirements, a return to the Brother Francis and Bean’s Café model of the past appears to be a no-go. The two side-by-side buildings on East Third Avenue lack enough room for all those who need shelter to sleep 6 feet apart.
“We’re not going to back to having hundreds of people packed in like sardines,” said Constant, a sentiment that Berkowitz has echoed in recent public forums.
The city wants to acquire additional shelter space so that the arena can revert back to its former use as an entertainment and sports venue. One of the buildings it is considering is the former Alaska Club site on Tudor Road near Old Seward Highway, said Assembly member Meg Zaletel.
To swiftly create new shelter spaces in other parts of town, the city has introduced an ordinance to allow such facilities in neighborhoods that are zoned as B-3. These are mixed use areas scattered throughout Anchorage. The ordinance is scheduled to be taken up at the Assembly meeting on July 14.
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