On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly will vote on whether to allow the Berkowitz administration to move forward with a plan to purchase four buildings to house homeless and treatment services, fundamentally transforming the way Anchorage approaches its homelessness problem.
The decision would allow the city to use up to $22.5 million in federal CARES Act funds to purchase the buildings. Then, the city would put out requests for proposals for different service providers to operate programs at the various buildings. Once the city selects providers, the contracts would be subject to Assembly approval.
For years, Anchorage residents have called on the city to address its homelessness problem. Tent camps along the greenbelts and congregations of people on street corners, sometimes publicly drinking, have become an increasing concern for the city’s residents.
Along with the building purchases, the city’s plan is to move away from just providing food and shelter at places like the Brother Francis Shelter, and shift more to a model designed to lift people out of homelessness.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s chief of staff, Jason Bockenstedt, said during a Friday work session with the Assembly that the city’s plan is to add services, not move ones that already exist into the new buildings.
But the plan has stirred controversy. A number of residents who live near the proposed buildings have united in opposition to homeless and treatment services being placed in their neighborhood, especially in the Geneva Woods, College Village and Rogers Park areas.
Katherine West lives a block away from the Golden Lion hotel in Midtown, where the city wants to put a treatment center. She’s worried it will make the area less safe. She participated in a Thursday night community meeting, but wasn’t satisfied with the answers city officials gave. The city is moving quickly without considering the opinions of people who live nearby, she said.
“There was no outreach to us at all,” she said.
West isn’t alone. Several residents in the areas of the proposed service centers have said the city is moving too quickly. They are concerned the new facilities will affect property values and increase crime in the area. They have asked that the city to do a “community impact” study to assess how something like transitional housing or a drug and alcohol treatment center will affect the immediate area.
The city is looking to purchase the Best Western Golden Lion Hotel on 36th Avenue, just east of the Seward Highway; Americas Best Value Inn & Suites on Spenard Road; the former Alaska Club building on Tudor Road and Gambell Street; and Bean’s Cafe on 3rd Avenue and Karluk Street.
What, specifically, the various facilities would be used for is still being worked out. But a city outline details the plan, as it is now.
• The Golden Lion would be used as a substance misuse treatment facility, and provide case management and transitional housing as homeless people work to recover from addiction. The hotel has 83 rooms and would house at least 26 people, along with staff. Right now, the plan is to not have it be a locked facility, but a heavily monitored one with staff at egresses. This facility would be purchased and renovated with $15 million set aside from the city’s sale of its electric utility, Anchorage Municipal Light and Power, not CARES Act funds.
• America’s Best Value Inn & Suites would serve as transitional, or “bridge” housing, for people for up to two years. There would be 24-hour services provided in the facility, such as skill-development programs to teach residents how to create a budget, how to cook and how to prepare for a job interview. The goal is for residents to move from the facility to a permanent home.
• The former Alaska Club building would be used for day and overnight shelter, with services such as food and clothing distribution, counseling and life-skills training.
• The building owned by Bean’s Cafe, if purchased by the city, would be operated as a day shelter.
City officials estimate the operation of services at the four buildings would cost about $7 million per year. On Friday, Bockenstedt said the city would like to use $4.5 million of the annual revenue from the alcohol tax to fund operations. The rest could come from a number of sources, such as federal money or spun off from ML&P sale proceeds put into a trust fund.
The city needs Assembly approval to move forward, but does not necessarily need the support of residents. This week, city officials held meetings with the Spenard and Midtown community councils to answer questions.
During a Thursday night meeting with the Midtown community, there were 90 participants; most commented in opposition to the city’s plan to put a treatment center in their neighborhood.
Some residents have raised concerns about a separate proposed zoning change to expand where homeless shelters can go. City officials have said the proposed projects are not dependent on that zoning change, at least in the short term. During a Friday work session, administration officials asked the Assembly to either vote down that proposed change, or postpone it indefinitely. The city is working with the Assembly to figure out how exactly that zoning change would work.
“In fact, the treatment center proposed at the Golden Lion, it does not require any zoning change and if it was a private entity looking to do this, it would happen with essentially no public notice,” said Community and Economic Development Director Chris Schutte.
While the city does plan to go through a public request for proposal process to find providers to operate the services in the buildings, residents questioned why a request for proposal was not put out for the purchase of the buildings.
Schutte said the city did go through a formal request to real estate brokers the city works with.
“It’s not a true RFP, but there was a solicitation for available properties, both from the municipality, and some of the contractors we’ve been working with on this process,” he said.
During the Friday work session, Assemblyman Chris Constant said the city, through the proposed projects, can change how it approaches homelessness. Constant represents the downtown and Fairview neighborhoods and has long been an advocate for spreading homeless and treatment services throughout the city rather than concentrating them near Brother Francis.
“I’m hopeful that we are going to be very aggressive about funding these services so we can make this final transformation that our neighbors have been demanding and so we don’t allow the worst imaginings of the neighbors who these properties are nearby, as they have seen how we have done what we have done before,” Constant said. “We need to do things differently.”
On Tuesday, the Assembly will hold a public hearing before taking a vote on whether to allow the city to move forward with building purchases. People can testify in person at the meeting, held at the Loussac Library at 5 p.m. Tuesday, or submit written testimony to Testimony@anchorageak.gov.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said there was a meeting on Thursday with the Midtown Community Council. The meeting was with Midtown residents, and the council was not involved in the planning or running of the meeting.
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