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Public testimony on proposed city purchase of buildings for homeless services will extend into next week

People gather outside the Loussac Library while waiting to attend the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Bill Roth / ADN)

For the third straight night Thursday, dozens of Anchorage residents stood in line or called in to testify to the Assembly on an ordinance that would allow the city to move forward on purchasing four buildings for homeless and treatment services.

And again, when the meeting ended at midnight, people were waiting to testify. They will get their next chance at 6 p.m. Tuesday, when the public hearing on AO-2020-66 continues.

Thursday’s hearing consisted largely of people in opposition to the plan, echoing the hours of testimony in the two nights before. Some do not want treatment or homeless facilities in their neighborhood, while others argue the city has no plan and is haphazardly spending federal money while trying to keep the process from public view.

“There is currently not a clear plan,” Emma Ashlock told the Assembly. “There’s not a clear plan in terms of security for the schools, for the preschool that’s nearby and for the university that’s down the street.”

The buildings are 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 at Tudor Road and Gambell Street; and the downtown building housing the Bean’s Cafe soup kitchen at Third Avenue and Karluk Street.

The Golden Lion building would be a substance-misuse treatment facility, the Americas Best building would be a transitional housing facility, the Alaska Club building would provide day and overnight shelter, and Bean’s Cafe would be run as a day shelter.

Jason Bockenstedt, chief of staff for Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, said in an interview during the meeting that there is a plan. The initiative is part of the Anchored Home plan, a collaboration with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, which the city has been working on for years, Bockenstedt said.

“This is not a new issue,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this. We put out plans. We detailed what we wanted to do.”

As some people supporting the plan have testified over the past few nights, Bockenstedt said many of these conversations have taken place in public meetings, such as work sessions and community council meetings. However, many residents who have testified this week say they still weren’t aware of the plan.

Bockenstedt said he and other city officials have tried to do outreach and have given countless interviews to media describing how they want to address homelessness. He said community engagement is something the administration is continually working on.

“I would love if more people were engaged in the public process and were as keenly interested in all the details,” he said.

Another common sentiment from opponents is that the city and Assembly have already made up their minds. They will buy the buildings and approve service providers. Bockenstedt said that’s not so.

If the Assembly approves AO-2020-66, it would allow the city access to funds to purchase the buildings, but Bockenstedt said first, the city’s real estate department would meet with the owners and start negotiating prices. They would inspect the buildings and look for things like roof, pipe or foundation damage, then further negotiate a sale price.

If at any point the building does not seem like a smart investment, the city can back out, he said.

“It’s no different than what you do when you’re negotiating a home sale,” Bockenstedt said.

If the city purchases the buildings, Bockenstedt said, it will put out requests for proposals to potential operators, and have them detail who they plan to hire, past successes in operating 24-hour facilities, and oversight and accountability plans.

For the Golden Lion, which would be a treatment center, the city would ask for a program narrative, detailing the length and scope of its treatment.

The city would inspect the operator’s budget and how it would bill for services, Bockenstedt said.

The city would ask for a security plan and a neighborhood impact mitigation plan. It would ask potential operators what organizations it would partner with for indoor and outdoor recreation, and for transportation to make sure residents of the facilities aren’t spending their time walking through the neighborhood.

Then, the administration would come back to the Assembly to get approval for contracts with those operators.

“We fully expect that, at least for these, there will be a request to have work sessions on these, and likely a public comment session,” Bockenstedt said.

The city plans to use federal COVID-19 relief funds to purchase three of the buildings, something many testifiers said they believe goes against federal guidelines. Bockenstedt said federal guidelines clearly state providing shelter is an approved use of the funds.

While some people have expressed doubt that the city will be able to bring this plan to fruition as promised, others have expressed disinterest in a plan that provides more assistance to the homeless and addicted.

“None of these sites address the vagrant, criminal, mentally ill, alcoholic and or addictive population that does not want to be saved,” Rosemary Borchardt told the Assembly. “They have no accountability. They very often can’t make the decision to help themselves.”

Bockenstedt said the Berkowitz administration does not believe something like increased incarceration of the homeless, which several people advocated for, is the right approach.

“It’s unfortunate that some of the comments have talked about those issues,” he said. “I don’t think that, from our perspective, that that is the right course to take. These are human beings. A lot of them have addiction or mental health issues that have for so long gone untreated.”

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