Anchorage

Anchorage’s homelessness plan negotiators call it quits, citing breakdown in talks between Bronson administration, Assembly and others

The two negotiation facilitators hired by the city to mitigate clashes between Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and the Assembly over homelessness plans have called it quits, citing a breakdown in recent months of the “transparency, candor and ‘we are all in this together’ attitude” that had led to progress earlier in negotiations.

Since last August, facilitators Belinda Breaux and Tom Barrett have guided negotiations over plans to transition out of the city’s COVID-19-era mass care homeless shelters and to expand longer-term services in Anchorage. That process resulted in the city’s agreed-upon “mass care exit strategy” to stand down the large congregate shelter at Sullivan Arena and other non-congregate sites in hotel rooms around the city.

Breaux and Barrett told officials about the end of their facilitation work in a June 16 letter to Bronson, Assembly leadership and other key organizations aiding in homelessness efforts.

The facilitators’ approach “depends on willingness to engage on tough issues with transparency, candor, accurate data, and credible information,” they wrote. “We are no longer in such an environment and are thus unable to add value supporting decision-making needed to successfully exit mass care at Sullivan arena and implement agreed to planks of the client and community centered homeless strategy.”

The letter did not directly place blame on any party involved in the process. Reached by phone, Breaux said she would not provide more specifics at this time and that the letter stands as her statement for now.

Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia, who recently joined the homelessness negotiations group as an Assembly representative, said that regardless of the facilitation’s end, the city must move its homelessness and housing projects forward and address the immediate issues around the Sullivan shelter’s closure. He also put the onus on the administration.

“I do believe that the breakdown came because of the mayor and his team — not willing to show up with accurate information and candor and transparency,” Perez-Verdia said.

“The work has to continue,” he said. “And I’m committed to make sure that it continues and I know my colleagues on the Assembly are and we’re pretty confident that the community organizations that we were working with are.”

Earlier this week, homeless advocacy groups sounded alarms over the Bronson administration’s plan to close the Sullivan Arena shelter at the end of the month. The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, a group key to coordinating the city’s housing efforts, said that other privately run shelters are largely full and that an estimated 95 people at the Sullivan will have nowhere to go. The coalition also estimated that at least 200 others are already living unsheltered in the city. The Bronson administration challenged those numbers, but did not provide estimates of its own when asked.

The group’s executive director, Meg Zaletel — also a Midtown Anchorage Assembly member — called on the Bronson administration to produce plans for alternative shelter and provide basic resources like food and water. Zaletel also called on the mayor to halt the administration’s continued clearing of homeless camps while there is little available space for campers in shelters.

Following Breaux and Barrett’s announcement, Zaletel said the collection of services and organizations that make up Anchorage’s homelessness prevention and response system will continue housing efforts, regardless of the end of the facilitation.

The city’s agreed-upon homelessness plans have drawn support from private funders, including the Rasmuson Foundation, Providence Alaska and Weidner Apartment Homes, with a total of at least $7 million in donations from those and other organizations. The Assembly has already directed millions to fast-track projects, including a planned 150-bed East Anchorage shelter and navigation center, a complex care facility for medically fragile people that recently opened at the former Sockeye Inn, and plans for permanent supportive and workforce housing units in former hotels.

Zaletel said the coalition is continuing to “significantly support” the Sockeye Inn project and a 120- to 150-person supportive housing facility at the GuestHouse.

Still, the GuestHouse project hangs in the balance “amid funding uncertainty,” according to Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant.

In a statement from Assembly leadership on Friday, Constant said their highest priority is providing safe housing for people in Anchorage who will be unsheltered when Sullivan Arena closes. He also voiced concerns over homeless camp clearing, citing a landmark U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said if a city doesn’t have enough shelter beds available, enforcing a camping ban violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“Combined with the potential unhousing of 150 individuals amid funding uncertainty for the GuestHouse, the legality of camp abatement while the mass care facility closes is a top concern to address. If completed as proposed, the recent actions taken by the Mayor will put the Municipality at risk for another round of costly litigation,” Constant said.

The mayor’s office did not answer questions about the concerns with funding for the GuestHouse project, but said in a statement that it is “expected to come online soon.”

Asked about the city’s continued efforts to clear camps and the risk of litigation, Bronson spokesman Corey Allen Young provided an emailed statement saying “prior to posting any camp, we always assure that we have capacity within low barrier shelters. This was true when the 42 camps were posted on June 14th. If we do not have capacity within low barrier shelters an abatement will not occur on June 24th, then we will reevaluate the scheduled abatement.”

“If the MOA finds ourselves in a situation where we have camps impacting public safety with no low barrier shelter capacity, we will take steps to activate options for established emergency shelters,” the statement said.

The mayor’s office has not answered repeated questions from the Daily News as to what specific shelter capacity they are using as a baseline for the abatement notices.

Young provided the following statement on behalf of the mayor when asked about the facilitators ending their work:

“I appreciate the hard work, patience, time, and talent that Tom Barrett and Belinda Breaux put in as the facilitators with the Facilitated Collaborative Process. The progress made in the past year on this issue is historic. Never before have so many people come together to address the homelessness crisis in Anchorage. The reality is that hundreds of new transitional housing units now exist that did not prior to the pandemic. These include 83 beds at the former Sockeye Inn for seniors and the medically infirm, 130 rooms at the former GuestHouse for workforce supportive housing, and 80 similar rooms at the Aviator Hotel. This fall, the Salvation Army will be reopening their earthquake-damaged facility on 48th Avenue with an additional 68 substance misuse treatment beds. It’s the community around the new municipal navigation center agreeing to compromise by reducing the proposed shelter count to 150. All these steps have put us one step closer to getting a handle on this humanitarian crisis. They give me faith that despite vast political and ideological differences, we can address this community problem together.”

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. She earned her degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. Contact her at egoodykoontz@adn.com.

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