Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson has released an outline of his administration’s proposed plans to provide emergency shelter for hundreds of the city’s homeless residents this winter. His proposal takes four different tactics: lodging residents in 20 portable buildings, distributing city grants to organizations and churches that stand up their own shelter sites, continuing to shelter people in rooms at the Aviator Hotel downtown and, if needed, sheltering people in two city-owned community recreation centers.
The administration also says the planned navigation center and shelter in East Anchorage, a city project already underway, will be ready for partial occupancy by late November.
“I recognize we can’t implement the full scope of the plan without help from the Assembly,” Bronson said in a prepared statement. “To that end, I’ve committed to work with Assembly members to make the necessary code changes that will enable us to provide more than enough sheltering options for our unhoused neighbors.”
But it’s still far from certain exactly what measures the Assembly and administration will agree to implement before the impending cold weather hits. Several Assembly members say key details are still missing from the mayor’s plans, leaving them with further questions that must be answered before the city finalizes a plan.
“We’re waiting to see those details, so it’s hard to assess the plan. It’s good to see that there has been some work on it,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said.
Here are the specifics of Bronson’s proposal that officials have revealed so far:
• The city would use up to 20 portable self-contained buildings to shelter people that would be provided “free of charge by a community partner,” according to the plan document. Each of the about 900- to 1,000-square-foot buildings could house 10 to 12 people, providing shelter for a total of approximately 200 to 240 people, according to the administration. But this method of shelter would require Assembly approval of a change to city code. Officials plan to introduce the ordinance on Sept. 13 for consideration.
Bronson officials have not said who is providing the buildings or where in the city they would go, and they also have not specified what code change is needed. “The administration is doing its due diligence on all available lots,” Hans Rodvik, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said by email.
“The administration is excited about the opportunity of the portable options because it provides the flexibility to split up different populations and allow for 24/7 shelter capacity without interruptions to services or programs like what would occur at other muni facilities,” Rodvik said.
• The plan estimates that 50 to 80 shelter beds could be produced via a city micro-grant program that gives money to organizations, homeless service providers, churches and other groups that apply and meet city requirements for providing shelter.
• The administration is proposing to continue city operations of a shelter at the Aviator Hotel through at least December, with extension possible through April. The city has sheltered hundreds of people experiencing homelessness in individual hotel rooms at the downtown building for more than two years. The city began using the hotel as a non-congregate shelter site as part of its COVID-19 emergency response. About 200 people are currently staying there.
Renovations of the building are underway, and the city is working with the building’s owners, Alaska Hotel Group, to phase out its use as a shelter, incrementally reducing the number of beds available for emergency shelter use as work on the building progresses through the winter.
The administration did not provide cost estimates for continued use of the Aviator, and current funding runs through the end of September.
• The city will turn to the Spenard and Fairview recreation centers as a last resort. “If all shelter options have been exhausted the MOA will provide shelter for up to 100 women and children at the Spenard Recreation Center, and up to 100 single adults at the Fairview Recreation Center,” the mayor’s office said in a written statement.
The health department will oversee implementation of sheltering plans, Rodvik said.
Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the Committee on Housing and Homelessness, said he expects Bronson officials to discuss further details next week during a public meeting of the committee. Members have many questions to ask, such as potential costs, funding sources, locations for portable buildings and more, he said.
“I think there are parts of the plan where I have questions and serious concerns about the viability but right now, I want us to put it in a posture where we’re trying to work together between the Assembly and the administration and we’re trying to save lives before winter,” Rivera said.
The planned East Anchorage shelter — a project championed by Bronson and largely opposed by several Assembly members — is on track to meet deadlines, according to Rodvik. The contractor plans to begin pouring concrete for the foundation by the end of next week, and work to ready utilities is underway. But the number of people who could begin staying in the shelter come November is “still TBD,” he said.
The plans come as an estimated 350 people live unsheltered in Anchorage. Shelter and housing programs are largely full. Walk-in, low-barrier shelter no longer exists — for the first time in decades.
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 city’s mass shelter at Sullivan Arena in June.
The city has provided no food and none of the usual services available in homeless shelters at Centennial. It’s instead relying on service organizations, community groups and individuals who have stepped in to try and meet the basic needs of campers.
“Looking at Centennial Campground, it continues to be frustrating that the administration refuses to acknowledge it as part of its homelessness response,” LaFrance said. “Just, you know, acknowledging that would be helpful because I think it would show that we’re sharing a similar view of reality, and that we at least have that starting place. So much just remains to be seen.”
The administration is “working on a step-down plan for the campground,” Rodvik said. It will include transportation, he said.
A month of rain, mud, soggy conditions 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.
The administration’s handling of the mass shelter closure, continued scuffling over Centennial Campground and the information and details still needed in order to vet the emergency shelter proposal has some Assembly members dubious of Bronson’s ideas.
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said he is “skeptical but open minded” and frustrated with a lack of specifics.
“While this demonstrates a little progress towards this idea of the administration beginning to try to work with the Assembly, it’s not a plan. It’s a press release,” Constant said.
Information on funding possibilities, costs and code changes will be made public in the coming weeks, Rodvik said.
A separate task force has also been developing emergency shelter plans for this winter at the request of the Assembly.
Members called on the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness to lead the group, after Bronson officials did not show up to a committee meeting last month to discuss winter shelter plans and did not provide their plans at the time.
“Bottom line is — I remain optimistic that we can work together for the good of our community to address these critical issues that we’re facing. However, we need to be pragmatic on the Assembly and be prepared with solutions if the administration doesn’t have one,” LaFrance said.
The task force is slated to submit its recommendations to the Assembly by Sept. 22. Though the mayor vetoed the Assembly’s resolution, which called on a task force to forge ahead — a veto that the Assembly then voted to override — Anchorage Health Department officials have attended recent task force meetings.
“ACEH is glad to see the Mayor’s plan for emergency shelter and will review this plan and integrate it into the work of the Emergency Shelter Task Force. Our primary concern is the safety of people experiencing homelessness in Anchorage this winter, it will take all stakeholders to ensure this. We are glad to have Anchorage Health Department representation on the Task Force and to continue working with the Mayor’s office on the best plan for our community,” Meg Zaletel, the coalition’s executive director, said in a statement. Zaletel, in a separate role, is also a Midtown Assembly member.
Rivera said while some aspects of the mayor’s plan may not turn out to be viable options, the task force could help “fill those gaps.” All possible options should be reviewed and politics must be set aside to help the city’s most vulnerable, he said.
“Between the administration’s ideas and ideas that come into the task force, I think we will have a good collaborative plan,” he said.