The Anchorage Assembly decided to pursue its own plan for the city’s emergency winter homelessness response in the absence of a plan from the mayor. The move comes after officials from Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration did not show up to a committee meeting on homelessness Wednesday to present their plans for winter shelter.
Assembly members Wednesday evening passed a resolution to start a process to develop emergency winter shelter plans in an 8-2 vote at a special meeting. Members Jamie Allard and Chris Constant voted against it. Members Forrest Dunbar and Meg Zaletel were not present.
Earlier in the day, members of the Assembly’s Homelessness and Housing Committee had expected Bronson officials to present a cold-weather emergency shelter plan for single adults and discuss other pressing issues. Instead, just ahead of the meeting, the administration sent the committee an email containing written statements from Municipal Manager Amy Demboski with limited answers to questions from Assembly members and homeless service organizations.
“The plan is in final stages of development. We should be able to transmit it to the Assembly by end of the month,” Demboski said in the email to Assembly members.
The Assembly then called the special meeting to forge ahead with its own plan.
The resolution directs the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness to convene a task force that will develop a plan for winter shelter and submit it to the Assembly by Sept. 22, along with any funding requests. The Assembly will vote on the plan at the Sept. 27 meeting.
The coalition will select the task force membership, which will include service providers, city agencies and other organizations affected by or working adjacent to homelessness services. The meetings will be public, according to the resolution.
“We gave the administration a chance to get this done, and they didn’t. Too many lives are on the line for us to sit back, do nothing and hope that the administration will get a plan to us by the end of the month,” Assembly homelessness committee chair Felix Rivera said.
Demboski’s emailed responses to the Assembly contained some information about other homelessness efforts but no details about a winter shelter plan. Homeless service providers and the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness told Assembly members that they have not been consulted nor have they received any requests for help from the city on developing plans.
Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor’s office, told the Daily News by email that the “two people delegated to speak on this topic” were unavailable to attend Wednesday’s committee meeting.
“Chief of Staff Alexis Johnson is out sick and with the transition of (the Anchorage Health Department), the acting director is currently being brought up to speed,” Young said. “Again, we answered the Committee of Housing and Homelessness questions and will follow up with additional ones.”
Former health department director Joe Gerace resigned last week amid an investigation that revealed he had fabricated much of his resume. Gerace had been responsible for overseeing much of the city’s homelessness response.
Meanwhile, the city faces several “astounding” complications, Rivera said. Those include 180 to 250 people living unsheltered in Centennial Park Campground, another hundred or more camping illegally, continued uncertainty over funding for the GuestHouse Inn and the 130 people living there, and increasing pressure on the homelessness response system as more people enter it each month than the number who leave it.
“In my opinion, we can’t afford to half-ass this,” he said. “We need to do this in a way that relies on the immense amount of expertise we have in the community.”
Before passing the resolution, members added a clause, proposed by Randy Sulte, that directs the coalition to offer a representative of the mayor’s administration a seat on the task force.
Several members said they want to collaborate with the administration but have been frustrated by what they see as poor communication, with little transparency or information provided and frequent no-shows to Assembly work sessions and committee meetings.
“This is the hottest topic that we have going on right now in the municipality, and to not have the administration here I think is just a dereliction, frankly, of duty,” Rivera said of its absence at the committee meeting.
City officials are scrambling to stand up more shelter and housing before winter arrives. An estimated 350 people live unsheltered in Anchorage, and shelter and housing programs are largely full. The Bronson administration shut down the city’s mass shelter at Sullivan Arena in June, so walk-in, low-barrier shelter no longer exists. The only option for unsheltered people now is camping outdoors at Centennial Park Campground, where Bronson’s administration directed and bused homeless people as it shut down the Sullivan shelter.
Weeks of rain and temperatures in the low 40s at night have put even more pressure on city officials and service providers to move campers into shelter or housing, but there’s not nearly enough space or housing options available.
“I have no faith at this point that a plan is being developed and that we will see it, especially in time to address the crisis that is in front of us, which is 200 people living in mud, in a campground and winter around the corner,” Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia said.
About another 220 people who are homeless are staying at the Aviator Hotel downtown, but funding for those rooms is slated to end after September. Assembly members had also expected to hear from the administration at Wednesday’s meeting regarding any plans to stand down that operation.
Demboski said that the city has received indications that the Aviator’s ownership is willing to continue sheltering homeless individuals in the hotel rooms through the winter, though it would have fewer rooms available for occupancy. Assembly Vice Chair Constant confirmed that, saying he spoke with the operators. They do not intend to make 200 people leave the Aviator “at any time in the near future,” he said at the Wednesday special meeting.
He ultimately voted against the resolution because members voted down an amendment that would have removed language about the Aviator Hotel.
Allard, an ally of the Bronson administration, called the resolution “ridiculous.”
“We already have a plan coming from the administration,” Allard said, referring to Demboski’s emailed statements.
According to Demboski, the city is considering public and private facilities to shelter between 150 and 250 individuals, the capacity that the coalition has said is needed.
Construction of the city’s East Anchorage navigation center and homeless center is scheduled for completion in mid-February, but the city plans to begin sheltering people there on Nov. 21, according to Demboski.
Other Assembly members have said they have no faith in the administration’s ability to quickly stand up a plan, pointing to mounting issues with the city making timely payments to homeless service organizations.
To date, the city has issued no grant agreements so far for the Assembly’s homeless relief funding package, including for the GuestHouse, according to the Assembly’s resolution. Members approved the funding at a July 26 meeting.
Nonprofit First Presbyterian LLC, the prospective buyer of the GuestHouse Inn, is waiting for a distribution of $3.4 million in funds from the city. It needs the money to secure the purchase of the property by the closing date at the end of the month. The city has been using the hotel as a transitional housing facility for homeless individuals since May, and the nonprofit will convert it into workforce and supportive housing units.
The Assembly directed funds to the nonprofit to help secure the purchase as part of a larger funding package for homelessness relief last month.
But without the money, it is likely that the more than 130 people living there will lose housing, with nowhere to go but the street.
Portia Erickson, Bronson’s community engagement director, was sitting in the audience during the committee meeting. When the topic of the GuestHouse came up, she told Assembly members that the administration began work on Aug. 11 to draft grant an agreement and that the city should get it to the nonprofit next week.
It must then be reviewed, processed and signed by the organization and the city before funds can be released.
“The clock is ticking fast and it’s unclear as to whether this money is going to come through in time,” the Rev. Matt Schultz of First Presbyterian Church told committee members. “If there’s anything the Assembly or the administration can do, to not only provide promises of a timeline, but to actually execute on those promises, it would go a long way — not only toward keeping our plans on track, but also, I’m fielding questions just about daily from residents currently at the GuestHouse, wondering if their housing is secure.”
Funds are also supposed to go to Catholic Social Services so it can expand its low-barrier shelter capacity at Brother Francis Shelter; to Christian Health Associates for securing family emergency shelter services; and to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness to bolster street outreach efforts in the face of increasing unsheltered homelessness. Outreach is the first step in getting unsheltered people connected to services.
Lisa Sauder, CEO of Bean’s Cafe, said the nonprofit soup kitchen has been providing three meals a day to people living at the Aviator with no payment from the city for months.
When the organization’s previous city contract for the service expired, then-health department director Gerace asked Bean’s to continue providing food at the Aviator through September, Sauder told Assembly members at the committee meeting. He assured her the funds existed for continued daily food service at the Aviator, she said.
Bean’s has not been paid for May or June and no one in the city’s Purchasing Department or Health Department can find any contract or record of funds earmarked for the meal service, she said.
“Nobody knows anything about any contract, or any agreement,” Sauder said.
Bean’s is continuing to serve food to homeless individuals at the Aviator in good faith, Sauder said.
The mayor’s office did not answer questions from the Daily News about payment to Bean’s Cafe and any contract, or about the status of the funding for the GuestHouse purchase, and also did not say who in the Health Department has been developing winter shelter plans.
Lisa Aquino, former CEO of Catholic Social Services, told Assembly members that every year, the city faces difficult conversations and a challenge to quickly organize and stand up winter shelter. But this year is different: The city is getting an earlier start than usual — August rather than October — and funding is available, she said.
“I have been before this body begging for something to happen, for someone to put some money towards it in other years. And so it feels hopeful to me that there’s funding for this,” Aquino said. “It’s August. We still have a minute. You can pull something together in that time. It’s possible. We’ve done it before. It’s not easy. But there’s people in this community that know how to do this.”