As Anchorage debates opening a mass homeless shelter, potential lessons come from Reno and San Francisco

Visits to shelters in California and Nevada cited by Anchorage officials offer a glimpse into what’s working — and what isn’t.

SAN FRANCISCO — In a neighborhood of $2 million condos with views of San Francisco Bay, a pair of white aluminum-frame tents offer a refuge for the unhoused.

Two hundred miles east in Reno, a fast-growing, high-desert city Anchorage’s size, a massive tented shelter recently opened to house more than 500 of the city’s homeless citizens.

As Anchorage continues searching for solutions to its growing and seemingly intractable homelessness problems, it is far from alone. In recent years, West Coast cities large and small have seen steep increases in the numbers of people living outside. Now, some cities are channeling a surge in pandemic federal aid to bolster their ability to shelter the homeless.

With pressure in Anchorage to decommission a mass shelter at Sullivan Arena by fall, the new administration of Mayor Dave Bronson wants to build a city-owned shelter for the first time. The administration has proposed a large new facility on East Tudor Road to shelter and offer one-stop services and support to hundreds of clients. The project represents a major expansion of the city’s role.

“We do police. We do fire. Guess what?” Bronson told a crowd last month. “Now we do homeless.”

In formulating the plan presented to the Anchorage Assembly last month, city homeless coordinator John Morris and other city leaders have borrowed from the strategies of other cities.

Those cities include Reno, whose newly opened shelter approximates the grand scale of the one envisioned for Anchorage, and San Francisco, which operates smaller shelters with many services and amenities known as “navigation centers.”

As plans take shape here, service providers and homeless people in California and Nevada offer a glimpse into what’s working — and what isn’t — in their cities.

[Video tour: See inside navigation centers for homeless people in Reno and San Francisco]

‘This is a sea change’

Bronson, a conservative, campaigned on clearing Anchorage streets of what he termed “vagrants” and spoke of jailing homeless people for minor crimes.

When the campaigning ended, his plans took a far different focus: His administration announced a plan to construct a $15 million shelter for up to 450 people in a parking lot on Anchorage Police Department property off Tudor, just east of Elmore Road.

For decades, the shelter system in Anchorage relied on people hoping for an overnight cot lining up at shelters run by faith-based nonprofits in the afternoon or evening, spending the night and then leaving in the morning.

The new shelter would take a radically different approach, one that has been implemented at Sullivan Arena over the past 15 months. The idea is to impose fewer rules to bring more people in, and to keep them involved with lots of on-site services, from laundry to medical detox to assistance securing long-term housing.

“This is a sea change,” Bronson said recently.

Both Reno and San Francisco hold lessons for Anchorage.

San Francisco’s shelter seemed to work well in part because of its small size, and residents say it provides comfort and dignity. But there are still few post-shelter options for permanent housing.

A month after its opening, Reno’s mass campus is still working out kinks and city officials are at odds with activists who say clearing of homeless camps in the city has traumatized an already vulnerable population. While not everyone is willing to stay there, those who do say it’s an improvement from the instability of the streets.

[What do you want to know about homelessness in Anchorage? Let us know.]

Anchorage homeless coordinator Morris said he visited Reno and found the shelter “very reasonable” but hopes to build something that operates more like one of the smaller San Francisco shelters. He stresses the vision is practical, not political.

“Don’t use the P word,” said Morris, half-joking. “Don’t say the P word.”

The P word is “progressive.”

On the San Francisco waterfront, an oasis for unhoused people

Mae Anonuevo sat on a bed neatly stacked with her belongings, her shoes lined up on the floor.

She and her partner had been homeless in San Francisco for more than a decade, she said. They kept their belongings in luggage carts, moving from alley to street corner to alley. It was exhausting.

“There were times that I worked. That was the hardest, being out in the street, working just like you,” said Anonuevo. She’d show up early to work to use the restrooms, always wondering about the belongings she had left somewhere. At the Embarcadero, she can keep the things she cares about — like an arrangement of dried flowers from a friend — with her.

Anonuevo has been living at the Embarcadero SAFE Center, a 200-bed shelter in the upscale waterfront district near Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, since before the pandemic.

The organization that runs the shelters for the city says it strives to give every visitor a “five-star hotel treatment,” said Megan Phalon, site director for the center.

The Embarcadero center isn’t quite that, but it hasn’t brought the blight the neighborhood feared when it opened in 2019. But because of the pandemic, it’s also operating far under capacity.

San Francisco has one of the most severe homelessness crises on the West Coast, with more than 8,000 unsheltered people in the city at last count. In 2015, grappling with a growing public backlash, former mayor Ed Lee launched “navigation centers” meant to offer a safe, secure shelter for people on the way to permanent housing.

Navigation centers operate differently from a traditional shelter, where people line up outside for a bed and meal in the evening and are expelled from the property during the daytime.

Here, city street outreach teams meet unhoused people, talk with them about their situation and bring hand-picked clients to the Embarcadero center — no walk-ins are allowed. Most of those invited are considered “chronically homeless,” meaning they’ve been on the street for many years, said Megan O’Neill, housing manager for Five Keys, the nonprofit that runs the center.

“This is probably not the first shelter that they’ve stayed in,” she said. “The model is really designed to attract people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in staying in a traditional shelter.”

Many have been kicked out of other housing or shelters, she said.

At the site, the vibe is more college dormitory than homeless shelter. Inside corrugated metal fencing around the perimeter, residents eat lunch in an airy space with offices, modern furniture, books and TV.

In the sleeping area, everyone gets a bed with a thick mattress, rather than a cot. Couples can stay together. People are allowed to bring in their accumulated possessions, which can be securely stored in lockers. Additional items are held in locked trailers on site. Pets of all kinds are allowed — pit bulls and Chihuahuas stroll on leashes in a courtyard strung with sparkly lights.

Guests can grab something to eat whenever they want, rather than lining up for a plate at dinnertime. Medical and behavioral health workers visit. Residents can attend dog-training classes, join a gardening club or go to bingo.

The shelter is “low-barrier,” so some of the usual things that might get a person kicked out of a traditional shelter, such as bringing in drugs, won’t get you expelled from the SAFE Center.

The idea is to knock down every possible barrier that might keep a homeless person from coming to a shelter and getting help. It’s worth trying something different, said Phalon.

“I think history kind of shows us what we have been doing, across the board, isn’t working.”

People and harm reduction

Alex Michael pushed a stroller with her two dogs, Princess Nefertiti and Queen Isabella, through the garden courtyard. Michael said she’d been in an apartment but domestic violence pushed her back into homelessness. She’d been to three navigation centers.

Michael said she was in recovery from addiction and questioned the wisdom of letting people use drugs while in city housing, with little intervention. Still, she prefers the Embarcadero center over the hotel rooms in the Tenderloin district that she’d also been offered. Those were full of drugs and felt dangerous, she said.

“I try to turn it around and think well, you know, if I can walk through this and stay off stuff then I win,” she said. “So, each day gets a little easier.”

The Embarcadero center runs on the harm reduction philosophy, said O’Neill, the housing director. It’s understood that clients who are addicted may end up using drugs onsite, though it is discouraged. All navigation center sites offer clean needles. Staff carry doses of Narcan nasal spray, which can halt an opioid overdose, on lanyards around their necks.

“In the past month I’ve had four, and one we had to bring back to life, we had to actually bring him back to life, he died on the bathroom floor,” said Clinton Martin, an onsite manager.

Staff at the navigation centers have reversed 150 overdoses this year, O’Neill said.

Harm reduction is one facet Anchorage leaders are not interested in emulating.

“There will not be drug use in this facility,” Morris said. “That’s just not what we’re about. It’s illegal, for one.”

Replicate in Anchorage?

The Embarcadero center debuted to hostile neighbors. But nearly two years in, it hasn’t become what neighbors feared.

Wallace Lee, an attorney turned stay-at-home dad who lives nearby, is the spokesperson for a group of concerned neighbors who took the city to court over the location of the navigation center. There were tense public meetings in which Mayor London Breed was shouted down during the debate, and twin fundraising efforts by pro- and anti-Embarcadero navigation center factions.

The place has been relatively quiet lately, which Lee said he attributes to lower numbers during the pandemic and a stable population that has been allowed to stay, without cycling in and out every 30 days.

Lee still doesn’t see much evidence that the residents of the navigation center are being navigated to long-term housing.

“One of the things that has bothered us with navigation centers is they’re pretending it’s not a homeless shelter but it really is,” he said.

There’s a lot about San Francisco and the Embarcadero that doesn’t translate neatly to the Bronson administration’s proposal for Anchorage.

For one, San Francisco’s homelessness problem is so much larger in scale — more than 8,000 unsheltered people in the city alone — that no single site, like the one Anchorage plans, could address it. The city also spends a staggering amount of money on its homelessness efforts: $300 million directly each year. San Francisco Mayor Breed recently announced an additional $1 billion in funding over the next two years.

Morris said the Embarcadero center isn’t a perfect match, but it’s done a lot right.

He sees parallels in the Embarcadero neighborhood relationship: The SAFE Center countered not-in-my-backyard resistance by making an effort to be good neighbors and adopting an admissions process that didn’t incentivize camping or gathering along nearby streets, he said. The idea of offering all the help a person might need — from medical appointments to help getting an ID — onsite is also appealing, Morris said.

Part of what has made the Embarcadero work is its small size, said O’Neill, one of the managers. Built for 200, only 80 people have lived there during the pandemic to preserve social distancing requirements.

Could the model work for 450 people?

“That’s a lot of people,” she said.

Navigating where?

Anthony Jean III finished lunch in a quiet, light-filled room at the Embarcadero center.

Jean, soft-spoken, was from Florida originally but came to California to attend college, he said. He’d been homeless for years in San Francisco, living a frightening and insecure existence in the Tenderloin district.

“You know, once you’re here in the navigation center for six months or so, you do qualify for permanent housing,” he said. It would be worthwhile to stay if he could get help with housing, he thought.

That may not be realistic.

Phalon, the site director, said San Francisco, which has some of the highest rent and home prices in the country, still lacks options for affordable permanent housing for her clientele. The initial promise of navigation centers was that residents would get into some kind of long-term housing after six months. Years later, there’s still nowhere to go after the shelter for many people, she said.

“It’s not true,” she said. “Six years ago, getting into a navigation center meant you got housing.”

Not now.

A fast-growing Nevada city with a fast-growing homeless population

Reno and its next-door neighbor Sparks have a combined population of about 350,000 people — similar in size to Anchorage.

Once dominated by casinos and the gaming industry, Reno’s economy is changing — a Tesla factory moved in nearby — and property values are skyrocketing, with Bay Area tech exiles choosing the area for its lower density and proximity to outdoor recreation. Amid the boom, homelessness is rising.

“Like a lot of Western cities, we’re facing an expanding houseless population,” said Reno city manager Doug Thornley.

When it comes to homelessness, Reno and Anchorage have a lot in common: Even before the pandemic, city trails had been taken over by encampments. An old-style shelter had been deemed dangerous by its own manager and — as with Anchorage’s Brother Francis Shelter — was so overcrowded at the outset of the pandemic it couldn’t continue to operate.

Reno decided to take federal CARES Act money and join forces with Washoe County and the city of Sparks to build a large, centralized homeless shelter campus on land at the edge of a gritty strip of low-slung motels to the east of the neon, casino-filled downtown. The structure cost about $9 million and will cost between $6 million and $7 million to operate annually, according to the city. Private security is one of the biggest operational costs of the shelter, at approximately $750,000 per year, said Monica Cochrane of the city of Reno.

Reno selected Sprung Structures, the same maker of tented structures that built San Francisco’s Embarcadero center and is being considered to construct Anchorage’s shelter. Sprung Structures are made from fabric membranes stretched tightly over an aluminum frame, and can have the same plumbing, electrical, heating and ventilation of traditional buildings. The city council approved funding in November 2020 and the shelter opened in May. The tent itself went up in just 32 days.

‘Look how big it is’

The structure is huge. Inside double doors, a sea of cots for up to 604 people stretches from tented wall to wall. A high ceiling floods the space with natural light. There are smaller partitioned areas for couples and women. As in San Francisco, dogs are allowed and property can be stored on site.

With hundreds of people staying at the CARES Campus, experiences vary. But on a recent afternoon, several guests said the giant shelter had provided a respite from encampment life.

Linda Sandoval said she lived by the river or in her car for more than three years. “Oh my God,” she recalled thinking as she walked into the shelter for the first time, “it’s a roof over my head, but look at how big it is.”

Sandoval said the center could use more staff to prevent theft and fights, but she appreciates that she can stay with her husband, Daniel, dog Jack, and work with case managers, she said.

Alberto Richard said the look of the Sprung Structure reminds him of an “alien abduction crisis center.” But he said he’d gotten help enrolling in community college and securing housing. He thought he could move in a few days.

Danny Dyer said he landed by the railroad tracks because he couldn’t afford Reno rent.

“There was thieves out there all the time,” he said. “You had to worry about getting robbed. You had to worry about getting beat up.”

Anchorage versus Reno

Anchorage’s proposal mirrors Reno’s in key ways: Anchorage wants to build a Sprung Structures campus for about 450 people, as Reno has. It needs to do it fast, as Reno did. It will be a welcome-all-comers walk-in shelter, a big difference from San Francisco’s controlled-entry approach.

Still, Morris is emphatic that Anchorage is not trying to recreate the CARES Campus.

“That’s not what we’re looking for,” he said. “This is an opportunity to, yes, accomplish shelter, but also to help people while they’re there.”

Reno has an official count of 780 unhoused people, but providers say the true number is likely closer to 1,000 to 1,500 unsheltered people, similar to Anchorage.

The city also has some of the same issues with homelessness: Before the shelter went up, the Truckee River trail, a prized greenbelt along a river that bisects the city, had become rife with lawless encampments. One, under the Wells Bridge, stretched for blocks, spilling onto land near the railroad tracks.

“That is a thing folks in Reno had made their feelings known about,” said Thornley, the city manager.

Until the city provided enough beds to shelter homeless people, it could not clear camps under a U.S. 9th Circuit court decision that held unsheltered people cannot be punished for sleeping outside in the absence of an alternative. The ruling has shaped policies across the West, including in Anchorage where in 2019 the city began tracking shelter bed availability and halting camp abatement when no beds are available.

In the weeks since the new shelter opened, Reno has resumed “sweeping” camps.

Local activists have protested, saying the new shelter isn’t right for everyone and tearing down camps is cruel.

“This facility isn’t ready, there’s no laundry here,” said Ilya Arbatman, a Reno activist. “I mean there’s a million things that aren’t here -- it’s not ready for 500 people.”

Just outside the fence of the CARES Campus, a block-long encampment of tents and shopping carts has developed. The people inside don’t want to go to the shelter, each with a unique reason. But they want to be close to the showers and meals on offer. The campers had been notified they’d be cleared from the sidewalk in days, Arbatman said.

In May, Morris of Anchorage visited the 46,000-square-foot Reno CARES Campus. He said the shelter was “very reasonable” but verged on “warehousing people.”

“We walked in, I walked through the building, I walked back out and said, ‘There’s been a mistake. This isn’t what we want to do,’ ” Morris said.

‘Bed to bed to bed to bed’

Not everyone will come to the CARES Campus.

At the Wells Bridge, one of the largest pre-shelter encampments had long since been dismantled. In its place, there are burn scars in the scrub around the railroad tracks, syringe caps and ground squirrels.

A few people still wander down to the Truckee River. Matthew Tittor walked up, carrying a painting of a street-racing scene. He knew about the shelter but couldn’t imagine staying inside, “bed to bed to bed to bed,” he said.

The city wants to offer something for people like Tittor, an invitation to help that doesn’t count on someone being willing to sleep in a room full of other people.

At a site a block or two from the Reno shelter, an organization called Karma Box has set up a row of basic tents. There’s security at the entrance, bathrooms and a shaded area for eating.

The safe-camping site aims to get people who aren’t willing to use the shelter to accept some kind of help, in a place safer and more constant than the streets, said Karma Box executive director Grant Denton. Denton is a former meth and heroin addict who spent years homeless in Las Vegas.

Courtney Govan counts himself among the first residents of the sanctioned camping site. Drug addiction has kept him from being the father he’d like to be, he said. He has turned to petty crime to get by, and has made enemies on the streets. The sanctioned camping site tents are in the hot sun, but they allow him some distance from the pressures waiting elsewhere in Reno. He says his friendship with Denton feels like one of the only things he’s got going in his favor.

Back at the CARES Campus, Pat Cashell is thinking about what’s next for the shelter. The facility needs more case managers, a medical clinic and onsite laundry, among other amenities. Cashell, the shelter manager for Volunteers of America, wants it to work.

Once he was homeless and addicted in Reno, too — while his father was the mayor. His family never gave up on him, he said. When he decided to finally get help, his dad summoned him to his office. He arrived to find his father had called a press conference to announce his son was finally getting help for his addiction, Cashell says.

Former Mayor Bob Cashell died last year, just before the pandemic changed the world and forced Reno to confront its homelessness problems. Pat Cashell doesn’t want to let his dad’s legacy down.

“This will be a place of change,” he said.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at