Bronson homeless plan begins to emerge, including possibility of a large temporary shelter in East Anchorage

The administration of Anchorage’s new mayor won’t unveil how it plans to provide emergency shelter for hundreds of homeless residents until next week, but some details are beginning to emerge.

Mayor-elect Dave Bronson’s team is looking at using domed fabric buildings, called Sprung Structures, for a large but temporary shelter that would house up to 900 people on land near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads, according to several people briefed on aspects of the plan. The area under consideration is adjacent to the old Anchorage Police Department headquarters, a Bronson spokesman said Thursday.

The city faces a politically sensitive task with massive human consequences: It must find a way to shelter up to 900 homeless Anchorage residents when Sullivan Arena, which has acted as a mass emergency shelter during the coronavirus pandemic, is decommissioned at the beginning of September.

Bronson’s recently named homelessness coordinator, Dr. John Morris, an Anchorage anesthesiologist, has been meeting with local organizations that serve homeless Anchorage residents, as well as some Anchorage Assembly members.

In an opinion column published in the Anchorage Daily News last weekend, Morris laid out his approach: “Build enough shelter capacity to provide a safe place for everyone who needs it,” he wrote. “Fast. Go out and find our homeless neighbors where they are, engage them with teams of people who can earn their trust, with lived experience and training, carrying the message that there is a better, safer place for them.”

Morris was not available for an interview Thursday, said Bronson transition spokesman Matt Shuckerow.

Bronson takes office July 1.

While some of the organizations say they were asked not to share details of the plans publicly, the contours of the proposal have become public.

At Tuesday’s Anchorage Assembly meeting, Eagle River Assembly member Jamie Allard suggested that the arrangement being proposed would be “a dome-like structure” similar to The Dome, the large inflatable sports facility on Raspberry Road.

“It will be broken down into separate areas,” she said. “It would be a one-stop shop. We’d be able to circulate folks who come through the homeless population … they would then move them into permanent structures. It would be better than what they have at the Sullivan Arena.”

Christopher Constant, who represents downtown on the Assembly, said his understanding was that a single, large site shelter was being proposed.

“The only difference of opinion I have — it could be a great site. It can’t be the only site,” he said. “Putting 1,000 people in one site costs that neighborhood their integrity.”

Still, Constant said he was hearing the Bronson administration talk about operating a mass shelter in a way he could get behind.

“Comprehensive social services, lockers, storage — all the things we’ve been working toward, they’re talking about it,” Constant said.

In May, Reno, Nevada, opened a similar mass shelter using a temporary fabric building. The 45,900-square-foot structure, called the Nevada CARES Campus, can hold up to 900 people and was paid for by federal pandemic relief funds sent to state and local governments.

Sprung Structures buildings can be erected in a relatively short time frame and are not permanent structures. They’ve been used around the world, including in war zones, and can withstand extreme temperatures.

A site adjacent to the former Anchorage Police Department headquarters near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads “has been reviewed and considered as part of their plan,” Shuckerow said.

Morris has been meeting with homeless service providers around the city recently, soliciting feedback for the plan, said Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services.

Aquino said she had reservations about the potential size of the shelter.

“It’s really big,” she said. “That was our first comment — that’s a lot of people at a single site.”

While the physical structure could be similar, Morris has indicated in conversations and in the opinion column that he’d prefer an approach where people experiencing homelessness could get a range of services in one place: not only shelter but health care and help with finding permanent housing and job opportunities.

“They had other thoughts about how to do it,” said Aquino.

Aquino said she felt her organization’s feedback on the plan was “being heard” and that the moment felt like it had great potential for a sea change in Anchorage’s approach to sheltering homeless people.

“We have a unique opportunity right now,” she said. “I want to be hopeful.”

Many details about the plan, including how the structures would be paid for and who would operate them, have not been disclosed yet. The plan is set to be shared publicly at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Assembly Chambers in the Loussac Library.

Related coverage:

Anchorage Assembly delays votes on homeless shelter ordinances

A year in, Sullivan Arena may be the biggest mass homeless shelter in the nation. What happens next?