In a sudden change of course, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson on Tuesday announced that the city will not use its recreation centers in the Spenard and Fairview neighborhoods for emergency homeless shelters this winter.
The announcement comes less than a week after the mayor’s office said it would shut down its sanctioned homeless camp in Centennial Park Campground at the end of September and move the 200-plus unsheltered homeless residents at the camp into the recreation centers.
“We have listened to concerns from the public and Assembly members and we’ll be working with the emergency Shelter Task Force to find appropriate shelter options that meet the needs of our city’s most vulnerable,” Bronson said during his opening comments at Tuesday night’s Assembly meeting. “Homelessness in Anchorage is one of my administration’s top priorities. I’m committed to working with the Anchorage Assembly and our community partners to come up with successful solutions.”
A spokesman for the mayor said in an emailed statement Tuesday evening that “other aspects of the plan will be utilized for emergency shelter.”
Bronson’s announcement last week about his plans to begin using the two recreation centers for shelters at the end of the month elicited sharp opposition from residents in the impacted neighborhoods, some community groups and from several Assembly members. At Tuesday’s meeting, Assembly member Daniel Volland introduced a related ordinance that, if passed, would prohibit the use of community centers for emergency shelter unless a civil emergency is declared, he said. Members will not vote on it until a later meeting.
Other pieces of Bronson’s proposed emergency shelter plan include lodging residents in 20 portable buildings likely provided by the Anchorage School District, 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 now under construction.
It is not yet clear whether the Bronson administration still intends to close Centennial at the end of the month, and the mayor’s office did not immediately respond to emailed questions about the matter.
In his comments, Bronson did not make mention of his plans for the campers at Centennial Park, 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. He also did not mention the previously-announced Sept. 30 closing date for the campsite, which is just over two weeks away.
Assembly leaders 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. Bronson revealed more details of his plans for emergency shelter last week.
City officials are rushing to stand up more shelter and housing before the onset of cold weather and as the city is up against a deadline set by 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.”
Last month, after Bronson officials did not show up to a committee meeting to discuss winter shelter and did not provide their plans at the time, the Anchorage Assembly voted to create a separate task force to develop emergency shelter plans led by the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
The coalition estimates at least 350 single adults live unsheltered in Anchorage right now, including those at Centennial. Shelter and housing programs are largely full, with waitlists, while walk-in, low-barrier shelter no longer exists.
Assembly members have said they doubt the viability of other aspects in Bronson’s plan, including using the portable buildings. That idea requires a change to city code, and Assembly member Felix Rivera has said the Assembly process to pass the ordinance would likely take too much time to have the buildings ready before the temperatures drop and trigger the emergency shelter requirement. Rivera is chair of the Assembly Committee on Housing and Homelessness.
On Tuesday, the administration proposed an ordinance that would allow the use of “relocatable ancillary buildings” as emergency shelters for those experiencing homelessness when the city’s emergency shelter plan is activated. That means that at its next scheduled meeting on Sept. 27, the Assembly is slated to vote on it, unless a meeting is held sooner.
The Anchorage School District “is willing to donate relocatable classroom buildings to the municipality for sheltering purposes,” according to a memorandum about the ordinance.
Rivera has said that between Bronson’s ideas for emergency shelter and recommendations from the task force, slated to be presented to the Assembly later this month, the city should be able to come up with a working plan.