The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday narrowly approved spending $6.2 million for construction of a homeless shelter and navigation center on East Tudor Road after a lengthy and at times emotional debate.
The funding was passed in a 6-4 vote — after one member’s last-minute change of mind — as members weighed a multitude of lingering concerns about the plan against a pressing need for homelessness solutions.
Key members of the negotiating team implored Assembly members to approve the project.
“The vote today isn’t the end of the work, it is continuing a journey that’s been stalled for years,” Assembly member Felix Rivera, a member of the negotiating team, said just before the vote. “It’s part of the package that will start bringing back hope to a part of our community that’s been left behind. And it’s a chance to do right by a community that’s been historically wronged.”
Opposing the plan were Assembly members Austin Quinn-Davidson and Chris Constant and both East Anchorage members, Forrest Dunbar and Pete Petersen. Kameron Perez-Verdia initially said he had too many unanswered questions about the project to vote in favor but changed his mind in the minutes preceding the vote.
The planned 150-bed East Anchorage shelter and navigation center is one of five parts of the city’s plan to stand down its COVID-19-era emergency mass care operations at Sullivan Arena and noncongregate shelters while expanding longer-term homelessness services in Anchorage.
The Assembly had already earmarked $2.8 million for a navigation center and shelter project, and private organizations are also donating millions to other city homelessness efforts.
The East Anchorage facility will be near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads, serving mostly single men with “low-barrier” entry and an array of support services and navigation to permanent housing. The shelter is slated to remain open for two years, though the navigation center will continue for longer.
The administration has estimated it will cost about $5 million a year to operate — though many Assembly members have expressed skepticism at that figure and said it will likely cost more to run with an effective array of services.
The city estimates construction will cost about $10 million, according to a Monday presentation. Local company Roger Hickel Contracting will oversee the construction of the $2.3 million tensioned-fabric structure manufactured by Sprung Structures.
The facility should be sheltering people by the end of July, said Larry Baker, a consultant for the Bronson administration and a member of the negotiation group since its beginnings.
However, work will not be fully complete until at least the end of August, according to the city’s latest timeline estimate.
The city now plans to continue using Sullivan Arena as a shelter at least through July while continuing to move individuals into other housing options and shelters, Anchorage Health Department Director Joe Gerace told Assembly members during a Monday work session on the project.
Anchorage had previously set a goal of shutting down all its mass care shelter sites, including Sullivan Arena, by June 30. As of now, one of the city’s noncongregate mass care shelter sites remains running at the Aviator Hotel, where about 230 people are staying. About 350 people are staying in Sullivan Arena.
The city has not yet presented a plan for operations and services at the East Anchorage shelter, a source of trepidation echoed by multiple Assembly members during Tuesday night’s debate.
“There’s no question in my mind that our community needs emergency shelter. I believe very strongly that it is part of the duty of the municipality to provide that as a part of public safety. And providing navigation services is best practice,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said. “... We’re being asked to take a big leap of faith here. The project is in its conceptual phase in many ways, and I don’t believe it’ll be $5 million a year to operate. It’s too soon to say it’s a cost savings. There are not programmatic details available.”
The city is doing ongoing work with homelessness experts to develop operation plans, Baker said, adding that he could not yet say exactly when the plans will be ready.
Assembly member Meg Zaletel, who is also the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, is assisting in the effort, he said. (Zaletel was not present at the meeting and did not vote.)
Assembly members debated a laundry list of other concerns, including the possibility of rising costs for construction and costs of its operations over the next two years. Some members, including LaFrance, said they want to avoid any impacts to taxpayers, cuts in the city budget or taking funding from other services and projects critical to improving homelessness in Anchorage.
Other members who voted in favor said the shelter could end up saving the city money on homelessness, and that it would be more cost effective than Sullivan Arena.
“I get it. Homelessness. These are noncontributing members of our society. It’s hard to spend money on them. But if we ignore a problem I guarantee it only gets worse. So we have to do something,” Assembly member Randy Sulte said.
Others members expressed worry over whether community and social services organizations will step up to help, and whether there will be enough resources and staffing for the support services needed in a successful navigation center.
“Just moving the people over who have been running the Sullivan – I don’t know if that’s going to be a long-term solution to making the navigation center work,” said Petersen, who voted no.
Constant pointed to issues the neighborhoods around Sullivan Arena shelter have seen, such as trash, excrement on streets and crime.
“There’s nothing demonstrating, nothing — not one thing in any of these documents — demonstrating this will be any different over there than it is over here,” Constant said before voting no.
Baker, speaking with emotion just before the vote, promised Assembly members that he would address all of the issues and questions they raised Tuesday night.
“On behalf of the administration, I’ll do my utmost most to fulfill, with confidence, to deliver what this community needs,” he said. “... You have my word on it.”
The Assembly last month passed a resolution that outlined principles for the shelter’s operation and set a goal of drastically reducing homelessness in Anchorage in just two years, and reducing the population of single homeless men in the city to “functional zero.”
At that meeting members also voted to limit the shelter to 150 beds, with a surge capacity of 50 more, reining it in from 200 with a 130-bed surge capacity. Some residents and community councils in the vicinity of the project had called for it to be smaller.
Assembly members included a stipulation on the funding for the shelter, making the money contingent on Bronson’s agreement to convert the former Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown into a substance misuse treatment center.
In February, city leaders announced an ambitious timeline to end the city’s pandemic-era mass care operations with a June 30 deadline and began fast-tracking several projects in a race to implement a “mass care exit strategy” negotiated between the Bronson administration and the Assembly.
The mayor, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, had pushed for the city to build a shelter and navigation center at Tudor and Elmore since taking office last July, when his administration inherited the task of standing down homeless mass care operations.
The Assembly and administration entered into an ongoing negotiation process that ultimately led to the unanimously passed exit strategy, after the Assembly last summer rejected a Bronson proposal to construct a much larger, 450-person East Anchorage shelter.
Officials and service providers working on the homelessness efforts are facing a host of challenges including scarce housing in the city and a recent slowdown from the administration.
In a veto issued last week, the mayor rejected an Assembly resolution that would have allowed the city to quickly issue $900,000 in emergency rental assistance funds directly to the for-profit company running the Sullivan Arena, saying he wants to put it through the normal competitive bidding process.
Still, other city homelessness projects are already underway.
A 61-room housing facility at the Sockeye Inn is slated to open in June and will provide complex care to individuals who are medically fragile or have other needs. Anchorage also plans to open a workforce and permanent supportive housing facility that will provide 130 rooms of stable housing, among other efforts.
Later this month, work on the East Anchorage homeless facility will begin.
“Despite all of the unknowns, unanswered questions and frustrations — which I share — we’ve been working toward this moment for years,” Rivera said Tuesday night. “...This can be a truly transformative moment if we work together as a community towards it.”