Anchorage Assembly members on Tuesday approved the beginnings of a formal negotiation process with Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration on the city’s homelessness policy while denying another push from Bronson to build a 400-person homeless shelter in East Anchorage.
Tuesday night’s Assembly meeting was marked by acrimony and sharp exchanges between Assembly members and members of the administration. Bronson indicated he is continuing to pursue his own ideas on homelessness, including his proposed large shelter at Tudor and Elmore roads, and selling the Golden Lion building purchased by the last administration to use as a treatment center.
Meanwhile, pressure on the Assembly is mounting from homeless providers and others in the community who want to see Sullivan Arena returned to its normal use and a long-term plan for homelessness in place.
There is currently no plan in place to stand down the city’s mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena by the end of September, the Assembly’s previous goal.
The Assembly passed a resolution in an 8-2 vote. It lays out a formal negotiation process, using a neutral third-party facilitator, between the Assembly, the administration, homeless services providers and the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
It also says that the city will commit to designing one or more homeless shelter and navigation centers, but does not say where they would be or how large. Tuesday’s resolution reiterated the continued need for mass shelter in Anchorage during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This crisis is real, these people’s lives are worth providing for,” Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said to the administration during the meeting. “And we as a body, you, as an administration, have a duty collaboratively to figure this out. And it doesn’t happen by telling us, ‘Give us our plan, and then we’ll come to the table and have a conversation.’ It happens the other way around. In my opinion, we come to the table and have a conversation about what the plan is.”
Constant drafted the resolution, along with member Meg Zaletel, who is the chair of the committee on housing and homelessness, and member John Weddleton. Members of the mayor’s administration also worked during the drafting process, but the administration later pulled its support, Constant said.
Craig Campbell, Bronson’s chief of staff, said the administration has been negotiating with the Assembly for over a month and has compromised by bringing their original proposal for a 1,000-person shelter down to 400.
Earlier this month the Assembly refused to move Bronson’s proposal forward in the public process, temporarily killing it by refusing to put it on the agenda for a public hearing.
“Please don’t try to blame this administration four weeks into it that we are not working hard to solve the problem. We’ve given you solutions. We’ve compromised three times,” Campbell said. “We asked for a public hearing you would not give us and we’re here tonight saying time is working against you. You can’t kick the can down the road anymore.”
Bronson at the meeting Tuesday had proposed an amendment to the resolution that sought to first have the Assembly and administration agree to build and operate the 400-bed homeless shelter, before negotiating further long-term plans. The Assembly voted it down in an 8-2 vote.
Tense exchanges followed the introduction of Bronson’s amendment. Assembly members, Bronson and his administration all expressed frustration with the negotiation process so far.
At one point, Bronson implied that members of the Assembly had not told the truth during recent negotiations, which Constant said was untrue and an unfair characterization.
“So just tell me who to negotiate. Give me one or two names. I’ll put one or two people in the room, including me, and we’ll negotiate this. That’s how it works,” Bronson said.
Some members of the Assembly said the amendment amounted to Bronson attempting to skirt negotiations and the public process to push his project through.
“This feels like grandstanding by the administration. And frankly, I think it’s a farce. This proposal was already rejected,” Zaletel said of Bronson’s amendment.
Zaletel said the resolution provides an opportunity to go through a comprehensive process to evaluate the mayor’s mass shelter idea, among other options.
“And that seems to be rejected by the administration. That doesn’t feel like a very good-faith effort to work together. The time is ticking,” she said.
Bronson’s amendment, which did not pass, sought to keep the Sullivan Arena shelter operational until the mass shelter at Tudor and Elmore would be completed.
Zaletel has said it would be possible to move the mass shelter operations into one or more other buildings in the city, and on Tuesday she said the city has other options.
Still, Bronson said he sees no way to stand down the Sullivan shelter without building his proposed replacement facility, which would be a semipermanent structure.
“There’s no other way of doing it. It’s called math. I’m sorry,” Bronson said. “And we will work hard with you. We will cooperate with you to put as many people into the auxiliary shelters, hotels. You find the beds, we will help you get the get those people have navigated to them. But in the meantime, what about the people that are going to freeze to death on the streets?”
The negotiation team will start working with a facilitator to find common ground with the Administration on Aug. 1, according to the resolution. Constant said that the Assembly members on the team will include himself, Zaletel and Weddleton.
Bronson’s push for building a large shelter is an approach to the city’s homelessness issues that is largely different from the plans of the previous administrations and the Assembly. Many Assembly members have indicated they prefer multiple smaller shelters and treatment services in the city.
Part of the previous administration’s plan was the purchase of the Best Western Golden Lion Hotel for treatment services, which the city finalized in December.
Bronson while campaigning criticized the city for its building purchase plans and said he would sell the Golden Lion. On Tuesday, he said that his administration is “working to find a resolution to the Golden Lion” and that selling the building is on the table.
Bronson also indicated that he is looking for other places to create services such as drug and alcohol treatment in Anchorage, including in Midtown, where the Golden Lion is located.
The administration has “had interest expressed” in opening a drug, alcohol and psychiatric treatment facility near Alaska Pacific University, Bronson said. He said it would necessitate a road extension in the area, a proposal the city has previously considered and was tabled by former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
Meanwhile, a plan to increase the city’s shelter capacity this winter is needed soon.
The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimated in a report to the Assembly last week that about 465 more people will need shelter this winter, on top of the people currently in the Sullivan Arena and those housed in hotel rooms.
The Anchorage Wolverines, a junior hockey team new to the city this year, were scheduled to play their games in Sullivan Arena starting in October.
Kai Binkley Sims, one of the owners of the team, at the meeting urged the Assembly to find a permanent solution to homelessness and return the Sullivan to its normal uses. A few members of the team also spoke during public testimony.
“We’ve heard that progress has been made toward a long-term solution to house the homeless. And while the Sullivan is still being used as a shelter, it’s really hard to see that progress,” she said.
The ownership group for the Wolverines includes Aaron Schutt, Ryan Binkley, Kai Binkley Sims, John Ellsworth Jr. and Jay Frawner. Binkley and Sims are part of the Binkley Co., which also owns the Anchorage Daily News.
Binkley Sims and Lisa Sauder, CEO of Bean’s Café, which runs the mass care shelter at Sullivan, also called on the Assembly to find long-term solutions and more permanent housing for the city’s homeless population in a joint letter to the Assembly sent Tuesday.
“Now is the time for the Assembly to come together with the Mayor’s office to find a pathway forward. Taking no action is unacceptable,” they said in the statement.
The resolution passed on Tuesday also set several other actions in motion:
• It commits the city to designing a homeless and transient shelter that includes a navigation center. It does not say where that shelter might go. A plan that includes the design, site criteria and services offered and a public engagement process should be identified no later than Oct. 1, according to the resolution.
• It continues the city’s mass care response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the shelter at Sullivan Arena. It does not say that the mass shelter has to stay at Sullivan Arena, only that the mass care response needs to continue.
• It specifies that the negotiation team regularly report to the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness and engage the public, such as through community councils.
• By the city’s 2022 budget revisions in April, the team will identify existing facilities and or design purpose-built facilities that meet the gaps in the city’s housing and homelessness response services for purchase or construction. The Assembly will consider using remaining federal relief funds from the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act, according to the resolution.