Anchorage Assembly leaders are calling on Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration to produce a plan — or provide any information — about Centennial Campground and the 150 to 200 unsheltered people now camping there.
Assembly leaders say they’ve received little to no information from Bronson administration officials about a plan for what comes next for the Centennial Park campers and for the hundreds of others who are homeless in Anchorage.
The Bronson administration began directing and busing unhoused people to Centennial Campground as the city cleared illegal camps in late June, even as shelters in Anchorage were largely full, and it bused more unhoused people there as it closed the Sullivan Arena mass shelter at the end of the month.
Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance, during Tuesday night’s meeting, blasted the administration for the move and called on officials for transparency, information and a plan for alternative shelter.
“The poorly planned and hastily executed closing of the Sullivan mass shelter created an unnecessary crisis where hundreds of vulnerable Alaskans have been turned out with few options, leaving nonprofits scrambling to provide a safety net,” she said.
“Our community is not served when the administration does not provide timely and accurate information to the Assembly, especially in this situation where human lives are impacted. Please tell us, what is the plan for Centennial Campground and for providing emergency shelter?” she said.
Assembly members and some community leaders have called the situation a humanitarian crisis for the city’s unsheltered residents. The city has provided no food and few resources to campers along with little organization or oversight, and has relied on a hodgepodge of local groups and nonprofits that stepped in to help. That’s drawn backlash from community leaders and homeless experts who say it is a dangerous situation for the group of campers — which includes people with physical disabilities, mental health needs and some who are suffering substance abuse. Many were turned out of the Sullivan and left with no other option but to camp.
The Bronson administration also did not begin, until recently, a lengthy funding process for millions in federal money expected to pay for the purchase of a recently opened transitional housing facility. The delay has put the project at risk, according to some Assembly members now proposing the city pay instead.
The mayor, in his opening comments at Tuesday’s Assembly meeting, presented an antithetical take on the homeless situation:
“Centennial Campground is not being repurposed and is not part of the homelessness response. Presently at Centennial, those who choose to camp there have access to water, showers and restrooms. There is Wi-Fi at the campground that is appreciated by the camp users. Security has been enhanced with two guards on duty 24 hours a day. Experienced Muni staff are also working 24 hours a day to serve our residents. We have provided two different size bear-safe containers to the campers,” Bronson said.
He thanked the community for donations and providers for stepping up to help, including Bean’s Cafe, which is serving three meals a day “at no cost to the municipality,” he said.
“This progress made in the past year on the issue of homelessness is significant. Never before have so many people and organizations come together to address the homelessness crisis in Anchorage,” Bronson said. “My administration remains committed to ending homelessness in Anchorage and working with any and all community partners to make that happen. At Centennial campground and wherever you find anyone that is homeless, the No. 1 goal is to find them shelter, services and permanent housing. The municipality is also working every avenue to ensure people are provided food, water and hygiene through community partners.”
The Assembly at Tuesday’s meeting approved $2.8 million in funding to keep the city’s only remaining COVID-19 non-congregate shelter at the Aviator Hotel open through Sept. 30. The money will pay for a maximum of 225 rooms, adding 59 more to the 166 rooms that are currently sheltering 191 people.
The city did not answer questions from the Daily News about whether it will prioritize rooms for people who are staying at Centennial — or a plan for housing or sheltering the people living at the Aviator after September.
Many questions remain about the future of Centennial and Anchorage’s houseless residents.
A city law places a 14-day time limit on camping in Anchorage campgrounds, and many of the campers now at Centennial will reach the limit on Thursday. For some campers, the time limit has already passed.
Bronson officials have said that they will request an extension for camping from the Assembly. The administration introduced a proposal during Tuesday’s Assembly meeting that would allow the director of Parks and Recreation to waive restrictions on park land, but that isn’t slated to be considered for approval until the next Assembly meeting on July 26.
What will happen in the meantime isn’t clear.
For now, the city has not asked any campers to leave after reaching the time limit, or discussed enforcement, according to Roger Branson, chair of the Houseless Resources Advocacy Council. Since the city opened the campground to the homeless, Branson had been staying on site running a resource center, until leaving earlier this week.
The administration hasn’t answered questions from Assembly leaders about whether officials intend to use that proposal to extend stays for Centennial campers, or how long Bronson officials expect to allow unsheltered people to remain there.
Bronson officials have also not responded to similar questions from the Daily News, nor have they said whether or not they are currently enforcing the 14-day limit.
“It’s just so weird to be in the dark. I mean, it’s such a critical issue, and Assembly members want to help. We want to address this issue and find solutions,” LaFrance said, also noting that she doesn’t speak for the Assembly as a whole.
Some Assembly members are now working with local groups and organizations to find alternatives to Centennial and keep current housing and outreach initiatives afloat in the meantime.
On Thursday afternoon, Assembly members Felix Rivera, Kameron Perez-Verdia and Daniel Volland announced in a news release their own five-part plan to address “the immediate humanitarian crisis.”
The uncertainty over funding for a transitional housing initiative at the GuestHouse Inn has put the about 130 people who are living there in peril of losing their homes and becoming unsheltered at the end of August.
The three Assembly members have proposed a fix: that the city use $3.4 million in its own federal American Rescue Plan Act money to ensure the deal is closed by the contract deadline, rather than the federal HUD funds that they had expected the Anchorage Health Department to acquire.
Perez-Verdia said he believes the mayor and administration knew the funds were needed for the GuestHouse in February and delayed the process for “reasons that that didn’t make sense.”
“AHD did not begin the process until a few weeks ago and now says the soonest it can be through HUD is November. Further, AHD says the maximum funds would be only $3.2M instead of $3.4M. Both the timing and the amount jeopardize completing the Guest House purchase,” the members wrote in their resolution.
Assembly members have also proposed using $4 million in money from the alcohol tax fund for homeless services. Some would be a grant to pay for 60 housing units through United Way’s Landlord Housing Partnership, and some would pay to continue street outreach to unsheltered people through the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. The funds would also go to the health department to jumpstart a plan for cold-weather shelter.
The last piece of their plan is $12.6 million for the purchase of another hotel to open up another 120 units of housing. They have not yet put that item on the Assembly agenda or specified a hotel or other details.
“These are the top priorities related to homelessness in our city,” Perez-Verdia said. “They are reacting to some very serious issues that we’re facing: How we’re going to respond to Centennial Park, how are we going to ensure that there is emergency shelter ready this winter, once it starts to get cold? How are we going to ensure that there are housing options that we can transition people into?”
“We did not have to close the Sullivan — the administration chose to, and chose to open this camp up,” he said. “And so now we have to figure out a way to fix it.”
The two negotiation facilitators hired by the city to mitigate clashes between Bronson and the Assembly over homelessness plans quit last month, about two weeks before the Sullivan closure, citing a breakdown in recent months of “transparency” and “accurate data and credible information.”
The city’s plans, previously negotiated and agreed upon, have drawn millions in support from private funders, including the Rasmuson Foundation, Providence Alaska and Weidner Apartment Homes. The Assembly has also directed millions to fast-track projects, including a planned 150-bed East Anchorage shelter and navigation center and a complex care facility for medically fragile people that recently opened at the former Sockeye Inn. The GuestHouse Inn project is also a part of that plan.
Bronson officials have said the new East Anchorage shelter will not be completed until late fall or early winter.