Microphone in hand, Anchorage Mayor-elect Dave Bronson stood facing a packed auditorium roiling with questions from residents, some angry, some supportive, others simply concerned about his plan to erect a large-scale homeless shelter and “navigation center” in East Anchorage by the end of September.
The crowd regularly erupted in applause and shouting as Bronson and Dr. John Morris, a local anesthesiologist and Bronson’s chosen transition team leader for homelessness, spoke at a town hall Thursday about how they envision the plan as the key first step in fixing what they see as the city’s most pressing problem.
“I’m in this because of compassion,” Bronson said, to cheers and applause from some and cries of disbelief from others.
“No you aren’t,” shouted one person. Another in the back of the auditorium at the Loussac Library called out, “Bigot!”
Bronson’s plan to construct a semi-permanent domed tent shelter near the confluence of East Tudor and Elmore roads to house 400 to 500 people has quickly drawn questions — and growing backlash — from residents, social service providers and some Assembly members skeptical about its feasibility, impact and efficacy.
Some are concerned about the possible impacts on the nearby neighborhoods, while some say they worry that the three-month timeline is too tight and that the project will be significantly more expensive than projected.
Others harbor fear that the plan falls short of addressing the root causes of homelessness and that Bronson will return to rhetoric of his campaign, which focused on law enforcement as a primary means of removing what he then called “vagrants” from the city’s streets.
Still, others say they are encouraged by Bronson’s plan. The city’s persistent homelessness crisis has intensified, with a drastic increase in the number of people needing shelter since the pandemic began.
During Thursday’s town hall, Bronson hinted at other parts of his broader homelessness plan, including possibly using city resources to create more affordable housing in Anchorage and enforcing low-level infractions sometimes committed by people living outdoors, such as jaywalking. He also said he would fine people for giving panhandlers money.
“You can’t criminalize homelessness, and we agree with that. However, once we build a shelter, we provide more living space, more beds than the anticipated number of homeless that we have, then we can do a robust law enforcement for the people that are misbehaving,” Bronson said. He takes office July 1.
The proposed site sits against a wooded area next to the Campbell Creek Trail. To the south are ballfields and city parkland, including Far North Bicentennial Park. To the north is the University-Medical District, University Lake Park and Goose Lake Park.
Some who attended Thursday’s town hall lauded Bronson and his plan, saying it will offer the community hope and crucial services to vulnerable people.
The proposed shelter would be a low-barrier, 24-hour facility, meaning anyone who is not a danger to others could stay there. Partners and pets would be welcome, with safe storage for belongings, according to the plan.
“Some of the ideas that you have are excellent ideas, and I wish they were around when I was the one needing the homeless shelter,” said a woman who said she had been homeless in Fairbanks.
But other residents fear that the shelter will intrinsically change the area. Some say they worry that people using the shelter will spill into their neighborhoods and into the nearby parks and trail areas.
Residents say they worry that Bronson and his team have not fully considered or planned for mitigating those impacts, especially for a shelter so large.
They’re raising concerns about the potential risk of wildfires in the wooded areas nearby, and despite the presence of a skybridge at the Tudor-Elmore intersection, they are worried about the possibility of increased vehicle and pedestrian collisions on the already dangerous Tudor Road.
And many say they have been blindsided and are upset because the project’s timeline means residents may have little input. The city aims to stand down the Sullivan Arena mass shelter by the end of summer.
Morris and Bronson have emphasized the site’s location across from the Alaska Native Medical Center.
On Thursday, Bronson said a large portion of the “population in the visible homeless is Alaskan Native.”
“Let’s just call it what it is. I’m sorry — politically insensitive. OK, guess what? They’re a stone’s throw” from ANMC, Bronson said.
They note the shelter site is also near Providence Alaska Medical Center and is removed from residential and business areas, and they’ve said there would be little footprint on the surrounding neighborhoods.
Andrew Grey, treasurer of the Campbell Park Community Council, challenged the idea that area residences would not be affected.
“How can you guarantee that by adding an additional 400, 500, 600, 700 or 800 more homeless people to an area that already has a homeless presence isn’t going to increase the number of people camping in our backyards? Is it going to increase the amount of trash? Is it going to increase the amount of noise? Is it going to increase the amount of crime?” Grey said.
The affected community councils have not taken an official stance on the plan. They likely won’t have time, said Steve Johnson, chair of the Campbell Park Community Council.
Paul Stang, chair of the University Area Community Council, in an interview said he wants the Bronson administration to understand the depth of residents’ concern.
“This proposal was a complete surprise,” he said by email. “It is huge but lacking in significant detail.”
The answers the council has received from Bronson’s team have been vague, he said.
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar — who Bronson defeated in this year’s mayoral election and who represents East Anchorage, the area where the shelter would be — said that the shelter is too large.
“They are concentrating a very large number of people into a facility into a neighborhood that I don’t think is going to be able to accept it,” he said.
Still, others think the shelter could work. Assembly member John Weddleton said that even a 400-person facility, if well-run, doesn’t have to be a crisis for the neighborhood.
“A homeless shelter in Midtown would take people off the street, not bring people to it. In this case, you don’t have a lot of homeless there. So just to some extent by definition we’d be bringing homeless to that area, which can be a problem — but doesn’t have to be,” he said.
The Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission is just down the road on Tudor and doesn’t cause significant problems for the surrounding area, Weddleton said.
Mixed reactions from social service experts
Jasmine Boyle, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, said many service providers are encouraged by the city taking a larger role in addressing homelessness, but there are also many logistical concerns.
“We do need that shelter before the winter gets cold again. That is life and death for people in our community here in Anchorage. So I applaud the urgency and the focus around addressing those life-and-death needs,” Boyle said.
But, Boyle said, “shelter is not a solution for homelessness.” And experts believe that smaller, focused shelters are better for both clients and the neighborhoods, Boyle said.
Bronson and Morris acknowledge this but say it’s necessary to invest in one large shelter because it will be more efficient during a time with workforce shortages. Fewer staff will be needed than if the city created multiple smaller shelters, they say, and the dome tent would be divided into smaller “townhouse” structures to better meet the needs of the homeless, according to Morris.
“We can absolutely keep people safe and fed and warm and alive in a large building with lots of people in it — we saw that at Sullivan,” Boyle said. “Will those people feel safe? Will they feel cared for? Will they feel like they have outflow into employment, housing services? That’s the complicating factor.”
Lisa Aquino, CEO of Catholic Social Services, also said smaller shelters are better. The Brother Francis Shelter has cut its capacity in part due to COVID-19, but also to mitigate its impact and provide better, 24-hour services.
“What I’m really encouraged by and hopeful about is the fact that this administration is coming to the table, and trying to think of some real solutions, and the Assembly is working on the same things and has been really committed to it, and the public is really engaged about it,” Aquino said.
Still, others such as NAMI Anchorage executive director Jason Lessard worry that the plan is incomplete.
“It sounds as though it’ll be, ‘Well, we built this thing,’ and then they’re going to just kind of dust their hands off,” Lessard said.
Lessard, speaking as an individual, questioned Bronson at Thursday’s meeting, saying they had presented little data or proof that shelter clients would have positive outcomes.
“It’s a convenient way to build a big shelter to bring everybody off the streets, but it doesn’t sound like it’s looking for the larger solution, and striking at the roots,” Lessard said in an interview. “It’s just fixing this immediate problem. Ultimately, it’s not fixing the problem.”
A ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach
To address the wider issue of homelessness, the “carrot-and-stick approach is the best approach,” Bronson said Thursday.
According to Morris’ presentation on the plan, that means first doing outreach to the homeless and offering help, and later enforcing laws and clearing homeless camps.
Currently, the city’s hands are tied because there is not enough shelter space to offer everyone, and that means — due to a 9th Circuit Court ruling upheld by the Supreme Court — that it can’t enforce some laws, Morris said.
On Thursday, Bronson said once the city has enough shelter space, he plans to enforce low-level crimes. That includes cracking down on crimes like jaywalking. He also plans to set severe fines for people who give money to the homeless out of their car windows, he said.
“Remember, these people aren’t traveling, traversing town to get to a supermarket. OK? They’re traversing town because that’s their favorite corner in which they can pull out their cardboard sign and ask for money,” Bronson said. “That’s not good for them. It’s not healthy.”
Some residents at Thursday’s meeting said they see the plan as a way to force people into one large camp just to get them off the streets and to then have an excuse to put homeless people in jail.
“You say compassion, you’re really saying coercion. It’s like you’re using a dog whistle,” said one attendee at Thursday’s meeting.
“These people — their behavior has to become checked. It simply has to be that way,” Bronson said. “We don’t let anyone else break the law. And simply because you’re low on the economic scale does not mean you’re excused from abiding by the laws.”
During the campaign, Bronson used the term “vagrants” to describe what he says are homeless individuals “living problematically on the streets.”
“There were a number of folks that were concerned about what the Bronson campaign or folks affiliated with the campaign were saying about homelessness, and potential strategies or efforts to address homelessness that did not sound compassionate or aligned with best practices,” Boyle said.
Since the election, Boyle said she’s seen a “substantial reimagining” of his approach.
Bronson on Thursday fielded criticism from some in the crowd for his use of the term “vagrant,” which he said was once a common term.
“I’m not politically correct,” he said. “I’m accurate.”
He said that homelessness is not a “Republican or Democrat problem.”
It’s time for the city to step in, he said.
“We do police. We do fire. Guess what? Now we do homeless,” Bronson said. “We can stick our heads in the sand and ignore this problem, but it’s not going to go away, our city’s not going to get better, the developers aren’t going to develop our Midtown and, and downtown, they’re not going to develop when they see the problems that we have living on the streets.”
Assembly member Meg Zaletel, chair of the Committee on Housing and Homelessness, said that many elements of Bronson’s plan are not new and that the city has been pursuing solutions.
“I think what we have is an idea by the new administration that builds off of a lot of the work that’s already been done,” Zaletel said. “We had identified long ago and been working toward 24-hour shelter with engagement or resource centers.”
The location, the scale and the cost of the project are what is new, she said.
Morris and Bronson have not provided a cost breakdown, or specified how the plan would be paid for. But the team has projected a cost of “under $15 million.”
The city is under pressure to find shelter for about 500 people by the end of September.
Morris said Thursday that it takes about three weeks to fabricate the dome structure, three weeks to ship it and another 48 1/2 days to erect it.
There are “lots of unanswered questions, particularly as to the logistics and timeline and the financing,” Zaletel said. “I think we really have to drill down into those elements.”