After a last-minute reveal of new details from Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration about a much-disputed proposal to build a homeless navigation center and shelter in East Anchorage, the Assembly postponed voting on $6.2 million in funding for the project, pushing the date out to May 10.
Still, Assembly members took a step forward on the project at the Thursday special meeting and passed a resolution that outlines principles for the shelter’s operation. It sets a goal of drastically reducing homelessness in Anchorage, with the shelter remaining open for just two years — if indeed the members vote to fund its construction at the May meeting.
The Assembly also placed a 150-bed limit on the shelter’s size and a stipulation on its funding, making money for the shelter dependent on Bronson’s agreement to convert a former Midtown hotel into a substance misuse treatment center.
The East Anchorage shelter is one of five parts of the city’s plan to stand down its COVID-19-era emergency mass care operations at the Sullivan Arena and non-congregate shelters by June 30, while expanding longer-term homelessness services in Anchorage. The shelter would be located near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore Roads, serving largely single men, with “low-barrier” entry and an array of support services and navigation to permanent housing.
Until Thursday’s meeting, the administration had shared only sparse details of its East Anchorage shelter proposal, and many members of the public and the Assembly had called for more information.
Members of Bronson’s administration and Assembly member Felix Rivera, who is part of a team negotiating the city’s homelessness plans, presented to the Assembly a host of new details — including a construction timeline, a more detailed breakdown of cost estimates and a glimpse into plans for the interior.
But the last-minute information was a sticking point for some residents who testified Thursday and called on the Assembly to hold off on voting until the public had time to digest the information — and a sticking point for Assembly members who also said they need more time to review hundreds of pages of documents released to the public just before Thursday’s meeting.
The Assembly will again take public testimony on the project at the May meeting.
“Some of the folks tonight have testified that they would like to have an opportunity to look at the materials and to provide feedback. I want to honor that process,” said Assembly chair Suzanne LaFrance.
Several Assembly members, including LaFrance, also balked at the estimated costs of the facility’s construction, which have risen beyond the the previous $9 million estimate to an $11.9 million construction budget, according to the administration’s presentation.
That does not include another $1.5 million necessary for furnishings and other essentials, although the city will seek and has offers for donations, according to the presentation.
“I won’t support this project unless I see a great drop in the cost or something new that makes me think it’s a good fiscal decision,” Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson said.
Those costs also do not include the shelter’s operations. Bronson recently proposed using $10 million in the city’s coming federal relief funds to cover two years of the shelter’s services, an idea the Assembly has yet to consider. It’s slated to discuss relief fund distributions at several upcoming meetings.
The Assembly has already earmarked $2.8 million for a navigation center and shelter project as part of its mass care exit plan. Private organizations are also donating millions to the city’s homelessness efforts.
Before postponing the vote on construction funding, the Assembly voted to limit the shelter to 150 beds, with an additional surge capacity of 50 beds, slimmed down from 200 with a surge capacity of 130 more.
Assembly members also unanimously voted to attach a caveat to funding for the shelter: The money won’t be effective unless the mayor’s administration “makes a firm written commitment to make a good faith effort” to operate the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown as a substance misuse treatment center.
That stipulation was proposed by Quinn-Davidson, who, when acting mayor of Anchorage, oversaw the city’s purchase of the property for a treatment center.
Its purchase was part of a previous controversial plan to address homelessness from former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, a plan that Assembly member Jamie Allard at the time staunchly opposed. The building purchase became a source of campaign rhetoric for Bronson, who scorned that use of public money and who at one point told his supporters he would sell the building when elected.
On Thursday, Bronson did not speak to the Assembly’s stipulation on funding. Allard voted in favor of the caveat, speaking in support of treatment services at the Golden Lion.
“This just isn’t for the homeless. It’s for an entire community and we need to make sure that everybody has access to this facility,” Allard said.
The Assembly’s resolution on the East Anchorage project prioritizes permanent housing as a solution to homelessness and sets a two-year goal for Anchorage to reach “functional zero,” or when the community has “measurably ended homelessness,” according to the resolution. That means the city’s homeless services system actually prevents homelessness, and when it does happen, it is “rare, brief and one-time.”
Other new details of the East Anchorage shelter revealed by the administration Thursday included initial floor plans and schematics.
Compared to Sullivan Arena, the shelter and navigation center “is smaller, planned to be safer, intentionally built, more opportunities for personal space and community and meets the needs of the clients better,” Rivera said.
Construction on the project would begin in late May with completion in early November, and the Bronson administration also presented an interim plan for sheltering people over the summer. The plan includes using hotel rooms and increasing capacity at other existing shelters, according to the presentation.
Hundreds of homeless individuals are staying at the city’s mass care shelter in the arena. When it closes in June, many will need alternate shelter until the East Anchorage project is finished.
The homeless shelter portion would close once the city no longer needs it -- in about two years -- although the navigation center and homeless support services would remain, according to the administration’s presentation. The city would then use the structure for an emergency shelter during an earthquake or other disaster.
After the presentation, some Assembly members questioned whether it should be built at all, considering the price tag for a shelter intended to be temporary, and its location.
“This is not where people experiencing homelessness live or want to be. There’s no grocery store out there. There are very few other facilities that they use out there,” Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who represents East Anchorage, said.
The mayor has been adamant that a Tudor-Elmore shelter is necessary since he made a similar proposal last summer to construct a much larger shelter at a slightly different location. His initial proposal sparked a series of clashes between the administration and the Assembly over the plan, leading to an ongoing negotiation process and the current iteration.
Bronson on Thursday urged the Assembly to move forward, noting that the shelter is being designed with the expertise of homelessness providers in Anchorage.
“I think this is will give us the best outcome for the people that are at risk right now,” he said.