Anchorage is preparing to launch multiple projects as part of a plan to stand down its emergency mass care operations at Sullivan Arena. As a key part of that strategy, Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration is pushing ahead with a plan to build a 200-person homeless shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage.
At this point, the estimated price tag for the shelter’s construction is $9 million, though other costs could arise. The Assembly is set to vote on a request for $8.2 million in funding from the administration later this month.
The proposed shelter is part of a negotiated plan between Bronson and the Assembly to drastically expand homelessness services in the city while ending COVID-19-era emergency mass care.
While a key Assembly member says the shelter could be an essential part of the city’s homeless response going forward, it is drawing some neighborhood concerns related to its size and location, and at least one community council has passed a resolution against it.
The city is holding two community listening sessions on the East Anchorage shelter project, with the first happening this Wednesday. It is meant to give residents an opportunity to learn about the shelter and ask city officials questions about the project, the mayor’s office said in a news release. The mayor’s office did not answer a question about which officials will be present.
The city plans to build the shelter and navigation center with additional surge capacity of 130 more beds, for a total of 330. It would serve people over 25 who are experiencing homelessness, largely single men, according to the most recent update on its homelessness plans.
It would be located near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads, and serve as a temporary living facility where case managers connect clients to jobs, housing, health services and public benefits.
The Tudor-Elmore project stemmed from a previous proposal from Bronson to construct a much larger, 450-person temporary shelter, with a surge capacity of up to 1,000 people, at a slightly different location in the Tudor and Elmore area. The mayor’s original proposal sparked a series of clashes between the administration and the Assembly over the plan, leading to a monthslong negotiation process that is still ongoing.
Eventually, the Assembly unanimously passed a resolution on homelessness that outlined an agreed-upon “exit strategy” for Sullivan Arena in a compromise with the mayor.
[City’s plan to close Sullivan Arena homeless shelter before July faces big challenges]
Now, the city is fast-tracking multiple projects laid out in that agreement. To end mass care at Sullivan Arena and local hotels by June 30, it must transition people there into other shelters and housing.
Accounting for more people already living in illegal camps outside, the city must find shelter or housing for about 1,000 people. The East Anchorage shelter and navigation center is a critical piece of its strategy.
“Solving homelessness is a goal we all want to achieve in Anchorage. The proposed navigation center, that the Assembly Legislative Drafting Group and I support, will serve as a key pillar as we build out our robust plan to help the most vulnerable in our city,” Bronson said in a written statement.
The city has chosen a site for the shelter that is directly west of the mayor’s originally proposed location of the Anchorage Police Department’s evidence vehicle lot. Construction at the new location will be faster and cheaper because it won’t require relocating the more than 500 vehicles in the APD lot.
Hopes for ‘a true navigation center’
Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness, said that Anchorage has not had adequate response infrastructure to help its growing homelessness population and to alleviate the visible signs of homelessness in the city’s streets, parks, playgrounds and neighborhoods.
“There are key pieces of infrastructure which I think are missing. And I think this navigation center is one of those pieces that, if done right, could add huge value to our community,” Rivera said.
For Rivera, it’s most important that the project results in creating a “true navigation center,” he said.
“By that, I mean it truly focuses on providing services. And primarily, the focal point of service should be getting folks to a place where they can get housing,” he said. “Navigation centers are like mini-cheerleaders of Housing First. Their goal is to get people into housing. And then once you’re in housing you get all of the wraparound services you need to stabilize in supportive housing.”
A person’s stay in a navigation center should be relatively short, from a month to two months, he said.
The Anchorage Health Department and the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness will collaborate to draft “navigation center operating best practices,” according to the update on the plans from the negotiation group.
“This work will support decisions regarding the programs and practices that will be provided at the Tudor Elmore Navigation Center to inform the detailed design of the physical facility and the future operating costs,” the update says.
The coalition is the organization at the crux of the city’s effort, helping to move the exit strategy forward by providing expertise, tracking data on homelessness and bringing together private philanthropy and organizations to help stand up more resources in Anchorage.
The mayor’s administration has submitted a resolution requesting $8.2 million in funding to the Assembly for approval at its regular meeting on April 26. That requests include two new funding sources:
• $4.9 million in general funds that the Assembly had previously approved for purchasing properties for homelessness services under a proposal from former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration. Those funds originally came to the city as federal CARES Act funds.
• $1.3 million from the alcohol tax fund balance.
The Bronson administration has also requested to use $2 million that the Assembly had already directed into a restricted fund with the Alaska Community Foundation that the city set up for this purpose -- implementing its mass care exit strategy, including the navigation center. Also, the Assembly already approved $800,000 for the shelter’s design, bringing the price tag to $9 million so far.
That does not include operating costs, according to the update.
The city has finished its competitive bidding process for the project and recommended Roger Hickel Contracting oversee the project, a local company that has previously worked on multiple city projects.
Community council concerns
Rivera said he is concerned that so far the city hasn’t done enough work to “bring the community forward and bring the Assembly forward so that we can all feel confident in the work”
Rivera said he hopes to learn more details about the administration’s process in the coming weeks, including at the listening sessions. The Assembly and public need details about whether permitting processes are being followed, such as a conditional-use permit, among other questions, he said.
The public “wants to know that they can have full faith and confidence that this project is being done properly, that the dollars are being spent properly. And we should be able to give that assurance to the public,” he said.
Hans Rodvik, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said by email that the listening sessions “go above and beyond” municipal code requirements for obtaining a conditional use permit for the navigation center.
[The aftermath of a SWAT standoff upends life in a neighboring Anchorage apartment]
“We are still in an early phase of this project and by understanding the community’s concerns, that plan can and should be modified to ease the public’s concerns,” Rodvik said. “A fact sheet regarding the proposed Navigation Center will be provided to the public. Members of the public will be given an opportunity to speak and share their thoughts on the project. Various municipal officials will be present to answer questions.”
The mayor’s initial proposal for a much larger shelter elicited some public outcry from residents concerned with impacts to neighborhoods, concerned that a large shelter would be difficult to manage and be a stressful, suboptimal place for homeless individuals to seek help.
At least one community council has passed a resolution against the proposed Tudor-Elmore shelter. Basher Community Council, which comprises an area directly east of the shelter’s proposed location, cited a list of concerns, including the shelter’s close proximity to parks and concern about fire danger, a lack of a nearby grocery store, and traffic danger for pedestrians in the high speed traffic area.
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who represents East Anchorage, said many people he’s spoken with in the community would be accepting of a smaller, 150-bed shelter with a 50-bed surge capacity.
That size would better meet the parameters of the Assembly’s ordinance requiring homeless shelters to get city licenses, he said. The ordinance passed last summer and limits the size of overnight shelters to 150, although a shelter could seek a variance to be larger.
Still, some are worried that putting a “significant new shelter so close to the Gospel Rescue Mission is inviting harm to the clients, particularly with the number of accidents we already have on Tudor,” Dunbar said.
The first listening session will be held Wednesday, April 13, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., in the Wilda Marston Theater at the Loussac Library. A second session will be on Thursday, April 28, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., in the Assembly Chambers at the Loussac Library, according to the mayor’s office.
Both listening sessions are open to all members of the public and will be livestreamed on the mayor’s Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo pages.