Anchorage is at a turning point in the way it addresses homelessness, and what comes next may be largely influenced by the next mayor.
The visions of the two candidates, Forrest Dunbar and Dave Bronson, diverge. Dunbar, an Assembly member from East Anchorage, favors an expansion of programs already in place to house individuals in hotel rooms, apartments and other supportive housing.
Bronson, a retired military and commercial pilot, has said he will focus on cleaning up homeless camps and putting a subset of the homeless population he refers to as “vagrants” in jail for petty crimes. He also favors turning the Northway Mall or another location into a large emergency shelter.
The Anchorage Daily News analyzed what each candidate has said about his plan for addressing homelessness, and spoke with service providers, the Anchorage Police Department and other experts in the field about how realistic the plans are.
The old way is gone
People who work in homeless services agree that Anchorage is poised for major change in how it addresses the chronic and stubborn problem of homelessness.
The pandemic brought an abrupt end to the old paradigm, which rested on a single, crowded shelter and soup kitchen clustered in the industrial heart of the city, near downtown.
In its place, a large but temporary shelter at the Sullivan Arena — built for hockey, concerts and trade shows — has been sheltering up to 300 people per night recently, while up to 400 more sleep in city-provided hotel rooms and other “scattered sites” around town. The new method is working, city and homeless services leaders assert, but it is paid for by by federal emergency funds set to expire later this year.
So far, the city has spent more than $10.65 million for just the costs of the Sullivan shelter, not including hotel rooms, according to Heather Aronno, spokeswoman for the city’s Emergency Operations Center. The costs are 100% reimbursed through FEMA, but only until Sept. 30, according to Jason Bockenstedt, chief of staff for the acting mayor.
What will be built in its place hasn’t yet been decided. In June, the Anchorage Assembly will consider a pair of proposed ordinances that would alter language in the city’s zoning code, paving the way for shelters in new parts of town and creating a licensing structure for shelters.
In the past, the mayor and the municipality didn’t take a leading role in working on homelessness, said Jasmine Boyle, head of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. That changed in 2018, when the city announced an ambitious plan and began to play a bigger role.
“We have to have government partners as part of a core team in addressing homelessness,” said Boyle. “We don’t have control as homeless service nonprofits over mechanisms required to really get to a solution.”
Bronson did not respond to questions for this story.
In previous public comments, he has said he categorizes homeless individuals differently, based on their behaviors.
He has said he sees the majority of the homeless population as people who just need some help getting back on their feet, like a single mother who has lost her job. A small subset of the homeless population he describes “vagrants” who are “living problematically on the street.”
“The visible homeless problem facing our city is — it’s like a cancer metastasizing in every aspect of our city,” Bronson said during a televised discussion last week hosted by Alaska’s News Source. He sees the issue as one of Anchorage’s biggest hurdles.
Visible homelessness is driving residents from the city, keeping businesses from thriving and making areas such as downtown difficult to visit, he said. Bronson said he wants to take a stronger approach to cleaning up Anchorage’s streets and homeless camps, including arresting people living on the streets for low-level crimes.
“Homelessness is not a crime and it never should be, but breaking the law while you’re on the street — that’s breaking the law, and you should be prosecuted for that,” Bronson said. “So if you’re drinking, doing things on the street that are supposed to be kept behind bathroom and bedroom doors, those are crimes, and we need to prosecute them.”
When police witness a crime, they will act, Acting Police Chief Ken McCoy said in a statement, but said other services are needed to fully address the issue.
“Law enforcement cannot solely solve the issue of people experiencing homelessness. It requires building partnerships with other agencies and service providers to address the problem in a coordinated, comprehensive manner,” McCoy wrote.
The criminal justice system is also among the most costly ways to address homelessness, said Lisa Sauder, the executive director of Bean’s Cafe.
“The two most expensive interventions you can have are the emergency department and jail.”
Jailing individuals for crimes related to living unsheltered or related to an untreated mental health issue when there aren’t enough resources available to help is problematic, said Assembly member Meg Zaletel, who chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness.
“At that point you’re penalizing someone for not only being houseless but also maybe not being able to get services that they really need,” she said.
Using money from the sale of Municipal Light and Power, the city recently purchased the former Best Western Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown, which it plans to use for drug and alcohol treatment services.
Bronson this week at a debate hosted by Alaska Public Media said he intends to sell that building on “Day One.”
He has said that addiction and psychiatric problems are significant root causes of homelessness. Bronson did not respond to questions about how he would address those issues.
“We’ve got to get this fixed, and quite frankly law enforcement for this small group of people has to be involved because these people are freezing to death on our streets, they’re getting hit by cars on our street, and the compassionate thing to do is to use whatever means we can to get them off the streets, get them into treatment facilities and keep them alive,” Bronson said during the Alaska’s News Source discussion.
Still, “the notion that I’m going to throw people in jail for being homeless — that’s antithetical to what I am,” he said. “I’m throwing people in jail because they keep breaking the law.”
A new large shelter?
Bronson said he is against proposed changes to Anchorage’s code that would allow new homeless shelters in areas zoned as B-3 business districts. Currently, shelters are relegated to “public lands and institutions” zoning districts, of which there are few in the city.
Still, Bronson last week said he supports the idea of building one to three large shelters in the city, similar to the current Sullivan Arena emergency shelter, which he said has been successful.
“We actually learned that a large facility works very well, as long as we’re not packing people in,” he said.
Bronson proposed three possible sites where the city could build or renovate buildings for shelter: the Northway Mall, the former site of the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School at 550 Bragaw St., or build a facility in a 15-acre parcel of land north of Third and Ingra in Fairview.
Larger shelters capture “economies of scale,” costing less than multiple smaller shelters, he said.
“We have to almost treat it like a business because it costs too much if we don’t,” he said.
Bronson said he was opposed to the idea of facilities distributed throughout the city.
“Vagrants in just about any city, they will wander about in a radius of about 10 blocks from where they sleep. So if you spread these homes out around the city — and it seems intuitive that we would want to do that — all you’re doing is increasing that footprint, and we’re making matters worse,” Bronson said.
Social service providers say smaller shelters with less impact on neighborhoods are the preferred approach, but question the logistics of creating them in Anchorage.
The community must decide what it wants, Sauder said.
Some residents, concerned that petty crime, disturbances and trespassing might increase in their neighborhoods, are pushing back on the proposed Title 21 changes that would expand where shelters could be located.
Bronson has also said it’s important that shelters don’t turn people out onto the streets during the daytime.
That’s a point where Sauder agrees.
One of the biggest learning experiences of the pandemic has been the success of a 24-hour shelter, where people can get to their cot and their belongings all day and night, rather than being asked to leave the facility for the daytime, she said.
Dunbar, too, agrees on this point.
“The fact is, there is no place for many of them to legally go during the day,” Dunbar said. “The Sullivan is open during the day, and so that helps reduce the number of folks that are out on the street.”
Dunbar said he doesn’t want to create another big shelter like the Sullivan Arena. Instead, he wants to create more of what providers call “non-congregate” housing options in Anchorage.
That means working to rapidly move people out of congregate shelters, such as the Brother Francis Shelter, and into places such as a hotel room, apartment, or a supportive housing situation where individuals can stabilize.
“My strong preference is to try to move people quickly out of shelter and into non-congregate housing, whether it’s permanent supportive housing or something a little bit less, with fewer wraparound services, but where they still have case management,” he said during an interview Wednesday.
Currently, the city is housing about 265 people in hotel rooms, according to municipal shelter data. Hundreds more are housed through voucher programs in apartments around the city, such as through the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Vouchers and at the Clare House, Dunbar said.
Those programs are working, Dunbar said, and he wants to house even more people this way, working with private landlords and hotels to help find more permanent solutions for the 350-400 people who’ve been sheltering at the Sullivan Arena.
Also, more beds at existing privately run shelters will open as the pandemic subsides, he said.
Still, Zaletel said it’s not clear just how many beds the established shelters will recover, but it will be far fewer than pre-pandemic. It’s a lingering unknown, and the city must identify what the gap will be. And during cold months, the city will need more shelter beds — usually an additional 120 in winter, she said.
Dunbar said he’s still undecided on the proposed changes to Title 21, but that if he does support expanding where shelters can be located, the changes would have to include “strict guidelines” and possibly licensing requirements for shelters.
“We cannot continue to centralize all of our facilities down at Third and Karluk or in that downtown core — it’s not sustainable,” he said.
Still, he said, the city may also need to create a new housing facility. But that should be a facility offering case management to help people find employment, get treatment for addiction or mental health issues and to eventually find permanent housing, he said.
“Intensive case management is something else that is important to highlight. It’s something that we plan to fund probably with a portion of the Rescue Plan Act funds, and it’s going to be an important part of how we stand down the Sullivan mass care facility,” he said.
Now, the city is receiving between $7 million and $8 million federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds and has more money for treatment and housing through the new alcohol tax, he said.
“I’m optimistic that after COVID, with these additional funds, we can make a real positive impact,” he said.
It also has help from private partners such as the Rasmuson Foundation, which, along with Weidner Apartment Homes, recently purchased properties adjacent to Brother Francis Shelter in order to build a new “resource hub” to serve the homeless.
The city should also consider creating a day shelter where individuals can legally be during the daytime — a place possibly with storage, showers and meals, Dunbar said.
He also supports using the former Golden Lion as a treatment center.
Alcohol tax funds are also going toward year-round camp abatement —but it is only legal to clear homeless camps when the city can offer the individuals a place to go, he said.
“You have to provide additional housing, and simultaneously you have to abate the camps in the woods,” Dunbar said. “And I do think we have the resources to do that — to do both — if we have better coordination between the municipality, the state and our many private partners.”
‘The mayor will certainly set a tone’
Last summer, Dunbar supported a controversial plan from then-Mayor Ethan Berkowitz to purchase four buildings for homeless and treatment services, using federal COVID-19 relief money funds for three.
The plan elicited public outcry and even protests outside the Assembly chambers, as many residents, including Bronson, called it an inappropriate use of the funds. At the time, businesses across the city were operating under various capacity restrictions and at some points had been fully shut down by the city’s COVID-19 mandates.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Inspector General eventually intervened to review the use of the funds.
The Treasury Department later gave the Assembly two options, one of which the city took: It spent the federal money on first responder payroll instead, and set aside the money that would have gone to that payroll from the city’s general fund for the building purchases.
Of the three buildings the city considered buying, only the Golden Lion has been purchased so far, and with entirely different funds, from the ML&P sale.
Dunbar has since said the city made some mistakes in the process. Although he said the public process was followed, the administration’s rollout of that plan was perceived by the public to be rushed and poorly communicated and it damaged trust in city government.
Still, Dunbar has defended his vote to approve the use of $12.5 million in federal relief for the buildings. About 8% of those first federal relief funds were designated for the purchases, and the majority went directly to supporting individuals, businesses and organizations affected by the pandemic, he said.
The city was trying to provide services “to some of our most vulnerable people,” he said during the Alaska Public Media debate.
Both candidates have targeted the other over their approach to homelessness.
“You can drive around town and see it’s not working, and he just wants to do more of the same,” Bronson said during the discussion on Alaska’s News Source.
Dunbar said Bronson’s plan to remove homeless people from the street by cracking down on crime would lead to a lawsuit against the municipality.
“It’s unconstitutional. It’s also horrifically expensive,” he said.
The new mayor will inherit a pressing homelessness crisis and the looming decommissioning of the mass shelter at Sullivan Arena.
Whatever they do, they won’t be operating alone.
“I think the mayor will certainly set a tone and a direction,” Sauder said. “But depending on how it’s executed, a lot of it is going to go to the Assembly for a vote. There’s going to have to be cooperation on all sides. "