Homeless advocacy groups in Anchorage are sounding alarms as the city prepares to shut down Sullivan Arena as a mass shelter, saying other shelter capacity and services for people experiencing homelessness are already severely strained.
The Bronson administration has said it will end Sullivan Arena’s use as a mass shelter on June 30.
The nonprofit at the crux of the city’s efforts to coordinate housing efforts, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, estimates at least 200 people in Anchorage are already living unsheltered on the streets, in camps and in vehicles.
About 95 more people will have nowhere to go once the Sullivan shelter closes, according to the coalition and its most recent map of the current mass care and homeless prevention and response system. On Tuesday, 219 people were staying at the Sullivan, according to the city’s data dashboard.
The coalition said privately run shelters in the city are largely full, save a few dozen beds in one “high barrier” shelter that requires sobriety and religious activities, the coalition says.
A city-planned 150-bed shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage will not be finished until late fall, according to the mayor’s office.
Meanwhile, the city is continuing to abate homeless camps. The coalition’s executive director, Meg Zaletel, is calling on the city to halt abatement.
Zaletel said come July 1, the nearly 295 people who will be living unsheltered will have little access to food, water, hygiene or safe places to sleep, unless the city makes a plan for summer shelter and providing basic resources.
Zaletel is also an Assembly member representing Midtown, and in that capacity has frequently been at odds with the mayor’s office, as well.
A spokesman for the Bronson administration questioned the coalition’s estimates of unsheltered homeless people in the city and challenged its assertions about Anchorage’s limited shelter capacity and camp abatement. When pressed, the mayor’s office did not provide its own estimate for the number of unsheltered homeless people in Anchorage. It did not respond to a request for an interview, and provided answers by email.
“The Municipality is working every avenue to ensure people get food, water, and hygiene,” Corey Allen Young, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said by email.
Questions on legality of continuing camp abatement
Zaletel, during a Tuesday news conference, said she has asked the city whether it has any plan for sheltering people or providing basic necessities like food while it constructs the “low barrier” shelter near Tudor and Elmore roads. The coalition sent the administration a list of questions earlier this month, she said.
“We really need clarity. Is there going to be anywhere else for people who are experiencing homelessness to go?” she said. “In addition, as people come into the system ... what do we tell them? Where can they go? Where can they go for help? Because right now the system is full.”
As it stands now, many people will be left with no choice but to live outside, adding to the camps already scattered through the city’s green spaces, the coalition and other organizations say.
The mayor’s office did not answer questions from the Daily News about whether it will provide an alternative shelter plan, or where people with nowhere to stay should seek shelter until the East Anchorage shelter is complete.
“There are efforts ongoing with unsheltered people to get them services and shelter. This has been a priority since Day 1 of the Mayor taking office,” Young said by email. “One thing to note is that all of these efforts including housing is a choice of the client, meaning there will be some that choose not to be housed. The administration will work to get unsheltered people into shelter and services.”
Anchorage groups working to address homelessness are also decrying the administration’s continuing abatement of homeless camps, saying without available shelter space, abatement is likely illegal.
A U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals landmark ruling said if a city doesn’t have enough shelter beds available, enforcing a camping ban violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“I’m just really concerned with the fact that there is a federal ruling against this. And fundamentally, I’ve heard no answer to why the municipality feels they can do this,” said Rob Marx, director of client services at RurAL CAP, a nonprofit providing homeless services, including outreach to campers.
Providers also say continued abatement is hindering their outreach and housing efforts, as workers have to relocate homeless individuals once they move camps
“They’re being told they can’t camp here and they can’t camp there. And they’re being told that they can’t get into a shelter because there’s not enough space. And of course, there’s not enough housing. So I am very concerned about the toll this is going to take,” Marx said.
The mayor’s office contends that “there is shelter space within Anchorage.”
“The Municipality will continue to do legal camp abatement as required by municipal code,” Young said by email.
He did not answer repeated questions about what specific shelter availability the city is using as its baseline for legal abatement.
Instead, he referred to several city projects that have recently or will soon come online. The city’s homelessness projects include a complex care shelter at the former Sockeye Inn and other conversions of former hotels into permanent supportive housing units. It is also still using the Aviator Hotel as a non-congregate shelter site.
“Anchorage has a robust private shelter system which remains under capacity compared to before the pandemic,” Young said. “With hundreds of new housing units now online ... it’s unclear why this capacity is no longer sufficient. Certainly, no data has been produced to this effect.”