As Anchorage Assembly and mayor negotiate homelessness plan, concerns over timeline grow

Anchorage homelessness providers are sounding alarms over impending cold weather and the fact that the city does not yet have a plan for winter shelter — and that the current timeline to come up with one is looking increasingly tight.

Negotiations between the Anchorage Assembly and Mayor Dave Bronson’s office over the city’s plans to address homelessness for the coming winter and its longer-term strategy are underway.

Two facilitators and a negotiation team of six — three Assembly members and three of Bronson’s advisers —have set a goal of Aug. 30 to agree on a winter shelter plan. That plan will later be introduced as a resolution at the Sept. 14 Assembly meeting to go through the usual public input process.

Even then, the resolution would not be voted on, if following normal public process, until two weeks later, the beginning of October. And there’s no guarantee that what goes to the Assembly will pass. At least six Assembly members would have to vote in favor of the plan.

“I think the question needs to be — what is the backup plan if the Assembly and the administration do not have a common path forward by Sept. 15?” said Jasmine Boyle, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

[When a Seattle homeless encampment was cleared, no one went to a shelter. The reasons are complicated.]

Still, those on the Assembly’s negotiation team say it’s the city’s best chance to find a path forward.

“We can worry all day and all night about endless scenarios. But the fact is, this time we are working closely on the two questions — what’s the short-term response and what’s the long-term response,” said Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant, a member of the negotiation team.

COVID-19 deepening shelter need

The coalition has estimated that the city needs an additional 465 shelter beds this winter, in addition to the COVID-19 shelter programs already in place, including the mass care shelter at Sullivan Arena and its program that houses people in hotel rooms around the city.

The city’s contract with Bean’s Cafe, the nonprofit running the city’s mass shelter at Sullivan Arena, expires Sept. 15.

That means that the shelter’s clients don’t know where they’ll be sleeping after that. And the number of people needing shelter, whether for a few brief nights or longer-term, is expected to grow during the winter.

“We need to not only have all of our actions in order for our traditional winter response — we need to be ahead of heightened response because of the economic impacts of COVID,” Boyle said.

Meanwhile, the Sullivan shelter hit its maximum capacity on Wednesday night, sleeping 400 people, according to city data.

“What are we going to do if tomorrow, we’re at 425?” Lisa Sauder, CEO of Bean’s Cafe, said Thursday

Sauder said she is concerned because the city does not yet have a plan yet to stand up a winter warming tent, another non-congregate shelter, or another congregate mass shelter.

The city is also seeing an increase in COVID-19 exposures and cases at its mass shelter.

“One month ago, we were at one positive case, with 16 people in quarantine waiting for results. We have seen a steady climb and as of today, we have 34 positive cases, with 28 people in quarantine waiting for results,” Shawn Hays, the city’s mass care branch chief, said by email.

In the face of the delta variant-driven surge and a continued and increasing need for shelter in Anchorage, the city is preparing to continue its mass shelter operations.

[Bronson administration hires controversial former Trump ‘homelessness czar’ as consultant]

However, the location is not yet specified.

The mayor’s office on Monday put out a request for proposal for a contractor to operate a 400-person mass shelter beginning Sept. 15 through March 31, 2022, with the option of six one-month extensions. But the proposal request does not say where the mass shelter will be located.

A tight negotiation timeline as winter looms

The Assembly and Bronson administration last month agreed to a negotiation process after clashing over how to best handle the city’s homelessness issues. The Assembly twice rejected a plan from the mayor to build a single large shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage, and Bronson has rejected efforts by the Assembly and previous administrations to set up multiple smaller shelters and treatment centers in Anchorage.

Members of the Assembly’s negotiation team say they are working to bring other members and the public into the facilitated planning process to find the best solutions for Anchorage’s shorter-term winter needs and longer-term homelessness plans — ones that they hope the city will largely agree on.

“We’re going to be checking back and checking back every step of the way so that we are bringing the body along so that it doesn’t end in failure,” said Constant.

The mayor, in a Facebook post on Tuesday, also said he is committed to finding a path forward.

“As we’ve said before, this effort is not about politics but about doing what’s best for our community,” Bronson said in the post. “We share the goal of making homelessness rare, brief, and one time. We have agreed to a decision process that will lead to quality decisions that are best for our community as a whole.”

Facilitators Belinda Breaux and Tom Barrett, a retired U.S. Coast Guard officer, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation and former head of Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., are guiding the homelessness planning process between the Bronson administration and Anchorage Assembly members Meg Zaletel, John Weddleton and Constant.

On Wednesday during a committee meeting on housing and homelessness, the members of the Assembly’s negotiation team and administration expressed some confidence in the process so far.

“So far I think there’s been honest, open communication about what the problems are and what we have to focus on, some of the issues that have to be addressed,” Craig Campbell, Bronson’s chief of staff, said during the meeting. “So, at this point, the administration is comfortable with the process.”

Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said she prefers the term “collaborative effort” rather than negotiations.

Still, some Assembly members during a committee meeting on Wednesday voiced concerns over whether their interests, and those of the public, are being represented and involved in the process.

Member Austin Quinn-Davidson said she wants the public and other members of the Assembly included as much as possible.

“What a number of us, I’m hearing, might be worried about is that there’s this decision sort of made behind closed doors, and then on the 14th, it’s unveiled, and then we’re in a position to vote on it or not,” Quinn-Davidson said.

Member Jamie Allard also said she feels like the process is unbalanced and does not represent her perspective.

“I just want to make it clear on record that you don’t represent me, you don’t represent the district. And I find it extremely rude and bold that three individuals think that they could just go in and negotiate everything as a body,” Allard said.

Weddleton said that three members working to draft legislation together is a normal Assembly process. Alaska’s Open Meetings Act prevents more members from participating without a publicly noticed meeting.

Once drafted, it will go through the Assembly’s legislative process, in which members can make amendments.

Constant on Thursday said that there will also be public meetings with the entire Assembly scheduled during the facilitated planning process, once the calendar is finalized. He also said there are any number of outcomes to the negotiations and that the negotiation team will involve the public and Assembly through the entire process.

Still, with cold weather coming soon, pressure is mounting.

“I was feeling really good that we have a timeline, that it is a timeline that the Assembly and the administration had agreed to. But based on the comments I heard from members today, if they’re not confident that they and the public are engaged — today — that gave me new concerns about whether that timeline is feasible,” Boyle said after Wednesday’s meeting.

Boyle said there are other critical elements of Anchorage’s winter shelter plan that need attention besides mass care, such as extra space for families who become homeless during the winter.

Despite disagreements over plans and process between the mayor and Assembly, Sauder, Boyle and other homeless service providers say they remain hopeful: It is the first time the city is stepping forward to put a large amount of money and effort into helping people experiencing homelessness, they said.