Officials in Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration say the city will shut down its sanctioned homeless camp in Centennial Park Campground at the end of September, where 200-plus homeless residents are living. The city will move those unsheltered residents into two new emergency cold weather shelters it will open on Sept. 29 in the Fairview and Spenard Recreation Centers, officials said.
That’s a shift from the emergency sheltering plans the mayor announced last week. Bronson’s plans initially listed the city-owned community centers as the “least preferred option” of the four proposed by the administration in the plan.
The change comes as the weather cools and city officials scramble to stand up more shelter and housing before winter. The city is up against a deadline enshrined in Anchorage city code: The law requires officials to open emergency shelter once temperatures drop below 45 degrees and “when a lack of available shelter options poses a danger to the life and health of unsheltered people.” The temperature dropped to 48 degrees early Thursday at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
The other pieces of the plan include lodging residents in 20 portable buildings — the administration’s preferred option — 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 opening a planned East Anchorage shelter and navigation center that is under construction.
“All four options are part of the plan, but the rec centers are the most immediate one to be used right away. Once prior options come online, the plan is to lower capacity/cease operations at the rec centers,” Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said by email.
The portable buildings would require a change to city code, according to the administration, though they have not said what exactly would need to change. The Assembly would first have to vote to pass any proposed ordinance, and that process takes time — likely too much time, Assembly member and Chair of the Committee on Housing and Homelessness Felix Rivera said.
The administration is “working to navigate” the portable building option to follow city code, Young said.
“Until that can be solved, the rec centers will be used,” he said.
The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates at least 350 single adults live unsheltered in Anchorage right now. Shelter and housing programs are largely full, with waitlists, while walk-in, low-barrier shelter no longer exists.
Those unsheltered includes people who are living at Centennial Park Campground in East Anchorage, where Bronson officials directed and bused homeless individuals as they shut down the city’s mass shelter in Sullivan Arena at the end of June.
The city will offer people at Centennial transportation to the recreation centers, and the campground will be closed to the public on Sept. 30, Young said. The city will “evaluate the need for abatement” of the campground — whether it will clear any remaining homeless camps — after that, Young said.
The city will publish an intent to bid on its website for potential operators of the rec center shelters, and contracts will be awarded before the end of the month, he said.
In July, the Assembly passed legislation that directed $1.2 million to the health department for emergency winter shelter.
The administration will use those funds to operate the recreation centers, Young said.
Assembly members and community leaders have sharply criticized the Bronson administration for shuttering the Sullivan shelter with no alternate shelter plan in place, and some have called the situation at Centennial a “humanitarian crisis.” (The city has provided no food and none of the usual services available in homeless shelters at the park, and Bronson officials have refused to acknowledge the camp as an official city homelessness response. Instead, it has relied on social service organizations, community groups and Anchorage residents who sprang into action to provide basic resources.)
“It is a critical life safety matter, but it’s one completely of the administration’s making,” Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said during a Wednesday special meeting of the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness.
Assembly members balk at using ‘vital’ neighborhood centers for homeless shelters
Several Assembly members at the committee meeting, including Constant, balked at the idea of using the recreation centers as a first option, rather than a last resort.
Using the recreation centers would “take away a very vital element to two communities in need,” Constant said.
That “feeds the perception, whether it’s real or not, that Fairview is always the first place this community will look to deposit the social challenges it can’t figure out anywhere else, that the people who are living in an environment who have the least political voice among us are the ones who bear the highest cost in serving this population and the needs of our community,” Constant said. “And so while this is a better option than freezing to death in Centennial camp, it is not a good option.”
Over the last several weeks, Assembly leaders have called on the Bronson administration to produce emergency winter shelter plans, and later criticized the administration after Bronson’s initial reveal of his plans did not include many key details.
During a presentation to the committee on Wednesday, the administration gave a few more specifics — including the pivot to activate the rec center shelters first — but again did not provide members with information they expected.
Bronson officials would not say who owns and would be providing the portable buildings. They also would not disclose where they would go.
Officials had hoped to announce that information, but “the community partner has asked us to withhold their name temporarily until we’re able to finalize discussions,” said Brice Wilbanks, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff. The buildings, which could house about 200 people at 10 to 12 persons per structure, have electric heat but no plumbing, officials said.
The administration is devising plans to include “core sanitation elements for whichever locations — one or two — that are chosen for this,” Wilbanks said.
Several Assembly members said that Wednesday’s presentation from the administration sowed further doubts about fundamental elements in Bronson’s plan. Assembly members also criticized Bronson officials for continuing to withhold key details of their plan.
“Just based on the presentation today, it seems like some of the administration’s recommendations are iffy on whether they are viable at all,” Rivera said.
Assembly member Jamie Allard, a usually staunch Bronson ally, said she was “appalled” by the lack of answers from the administration.
“I don’t know if there is a plan,” Allard said. “But we’re the sitting elected officials here on the body of this Assembly. We’re getting no straight answers, number one. Number two, get out of the homeless business. Allow the Assembly to do our job and you guys stay in your lane. I am tired of going back and forth with nothing going forward. I am upset that the rec centers are going to be, or tried to be used,” she said, then mentioning damage Sullivan Arena sustained during its time as a shelter. “... And to put them in little brown buildings with no bathrooms? This is something that the Assembly needs to decide on our own.”
Assembly members said they still need to see a breakdown of anticipated costs, operation plans and possible funding sources for the portable buildings.
Last month, the Assembly voted to create a separate task force to develop emergency shelter plans, after Bronson officials did not show up to a committee meeting to discuss winter shelter and did not provide their plans at the time.
Several members said the issue was too critical to take no action and that they could not rely on the Bronson administration to deliver a timely or effective plan. The Assembly called on the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness to lead the group, which has been meeting regularly.
“I’m counting on the task force to come in, and, for lack of a better term, save the day,” Rivera said. The group is scouring the city for possible solutions and is set to present recommendations to the committee on Sept. 21. Rivera said a fuller picture of the city’s final plan will come into focus then, and that any gaps in Bronson’s plans can be filled through the task force’s recommendations.
Some eye alternatives to rec center shelters
On Wednesday, Bronson officials revealed that they plan to move homeless individuals who have been staying in hotel rooms at the the city’s non-congregate shelter in Aviator Hotel downtown into the East Anchorage navigation center and shelter. About 140 of the 220 people currently living there will need alternate shelter or housing.
The administration said it would continue operations at the Aviator Hotel through at least December, with extension possible through April. The city began using the hotel as a non-congregate shelter site as part of its COVID-19 emergency response, and hundreds of people have stayed there over the last two years. 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 East Anchorage shelter should be ready for partial occupancy of 75 by late November or early December, according to Bronson officials.
“We plan to have the navigation center online, fully operational, by January 2023. And so those folks in the Aviator will transition over,” said Alexis Johnson, Bronson’s chief of staff. It could shelter 150 people at that time, officials said.
Cost estimates for the project have rapidly increased from an estimated $9 million to $13.3 million, according to an August email from administration officials to the committee.
The Assembly has already set aside $9 million for the project. That means millions more would be needed for the project to be completed and its already months behind the originally proposed schedule, Rivera said.
“It’s just not feasible,” Rivera said.
The city just received the permit needed to begin construction on the project from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday. The permit allows it to fill just over 1 acre in a wetlands area near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads. A tensioned-fabric building from Sprung Structures has already been designed. The administration plans to ask the Assembly to use $4.9 million of the funding for the project to purchase the structure at the Sept. 13 meeting, Purchasing Director Rachelle Alger said.
But Assembly members have other ideas for the money, including possibly spending to stand up non-congregate accommodations for homeless residents in other hotels.
Rivera said the city should pause the East Anchorage project and come back to it “after we deal with the emergency we have before us.”
Constant on Thursday said he will propose using the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel as a temporary emergency shelter, rather than the Fairview Recreation Center. The building was purchased under the previous administration to become a substance abuse treatment center.
Bronson heavily criticized the city for the purchase while campaigning for mayor.
The Assembly, when it approved a large chunk of funding for the East Anchorage shelter project, made the funding contingent on a firm written commitment and good-faith effort from Bronson to convert the Midtown building into a substance misuse treatment center.
On Thursday afternoon, the mayor announced in a news release that he is not considering a treatment facility in the building because a planned $100 million state transportation project at the Seward Highway and 36th Avenue, which is not yet funded, would impact the property has a “high likelihood” of a “total take of the property.”
The executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, Meg Zaletel, told the committee that the task force is looking at three Spenard hotels for possible sheltering — the Alex Hotel, the Barratt Inn and America’s Best Value Inn. Zaletel, who is also a Midtown Assembly member, also said that so far the task force has found few-to-no options for short-term mass shelters in privately owned buildings.
The task force has also placed the rec centers on its list of places to consider because they meet three primary criteria: a place that could shelter people with 24/7 operations, where meals can be served and showers are available, she said.
“Very few buildings meet those criteria,” Zaletel said.