The community task force called upon by the Anchorage Assembly to quickly draft plans for sheltering hundreds of homeless residents this winter has urged the city to open shelters in two city-owned buildings — the former Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown and the Dempsey Anderson Ice Arena in Spenard.
While all city-owned facilities “present some level of community impact and/or public protest,” using the hotel and ice arena would impose the smallest community burden compared to other city properties and they are immediately available, the task force said in its recommendations.
The group made its preliminary recommendations public on Friday. The proposed plan would shelter between 415 and 466 people, adding capacity for about 330 in shelter and 85 to 136 in housing.
The task force is a group of about 30 people with expertise or experience in homelessness and related social services and is led by the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. It includes the coalition’s executive director Meg Zaletel, who is also a Midtown Assembly member; Assembly member Felix Rivera; the city’s ombudsman, Darrel Hess; Lisa Sauder, CEO of Bean’s Cafe; and other members from a wide array of homeless service and community organizations, including United Way, Covenant House, RurAL CAP and the Anchorage Health Department.
Its proposal comes as city officials are scrambling to open enough emergency winter shelter for more than 350 people living unsheltered in Anchorage — and as the Sept. 30 closing date for the city-sanctioned homeless camp at Centennial Park Campground rapidly approaches.
Given the looming deadline and cold weather, the group’s recommendations focused on what could be done immediately to provide shelter for the next 90 days. In early to mid-October, the task force will give a broader report and further recommendations for continued emergency sheltering this winter, the group said.
In its preliminary recommendations, the task force said that standing up shelters in city-owned facilities allows for the swiftest possible recourse and would help the city to meet Centennial’s scheduled closure date, which Mayor Dave Bronson announced earlier this month. An estimated 200 or more people are living unsheltered in the city campground, where the Bronson administration directed and bused homeless residents as it closed the Sullivan Arena mass shelter in June.
The city also faces a legal deadline to open emergency shelter. Anchorage 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 task force’s preliminary recommendations say the city should:
• Use the Golden Lion Hotel as a non-congregate emergency shelter. It is city-owned, has 85 hotel rooms that are already furnished, could be activated immediately and is currently unused. This could house 85 to 170 people, depending on how many people share a room, and is the least expensive at about $371,000 for operations from October through December.
• Open a 240-260 person congregate shelter in the Dempsey Anderson or Ben Boeke Ice Arena. Dempsey is the better option because the other arena is located downtown and is the current home for Wolverines hockey, the task force said. This would cost about $1.372 million for three months.
The Dena’ina or Egan Centers could also be used as shelters but are “less desirable due to their downtown location and the lack of shower facilities,” the task force said. Using trailer-mounted showers indoors would be possible.
• Give money to current shelter providers to expand their programs. Covenant House, a shelter for youth, could add 25 beds with an additional $200,000 in funding. Beans Cafe could open beds for 40 people with an additional $306,000. Both are able to quickly increase capacity, but they need funding to do so.
• The Brother Francis Shelter will open another 20 beds starting next month. This is already funded.
The task force also included a list of potential shelter locations that could be used later in the winter, including privately owned buildings and hotels. Then, depending on capacity needs, the ice arena could be phased out.
The need for shelter will likely increase beyond 350 this winter, as the city phases out its shelter at the Aviator hotel, rental assistance ends for some households, and because shelters generally see greater use in the coldest parts of winter, the task force said.
The mayor proposed his own emergency shelter plan earlier this month, but the administration provided only sparse details at the time and the plan drew skepticism from Assembly members. The mayor has since flip-flopped on key aspects of his plan — the mayor announced last week that he would open shelters in two community recreation centers at the end of the month, after first describing them as a last resort option in his plan. Days after that announcement, he reversed course on the rec centers and said he would not use them, following community outcry over the repurposing of critical neighborhood buildings.
Bronson’s plans 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.
The task force in its recommendations decried the portable building idea for the lack of restrooms and showers in the buildings and for not yet having any feasible locations identified.
In an email to the Daily News, a spokeswoman for the school district said that the buildings are “usable structurally.”
The school district has an “excess inventory of relocatable buildings and has had an ongoing need to reduce its surplus because the buildings are not ideal for all-season use,” spokeswoman Lisa Miller said. “Most of these buildings have been in ASD’s inventory for 30+ years and originated during a prolonged period of growth and construction.”
Using the 150-bed shelter and navigation center project under construction at Tudor and Elmore roads, as the mayor proposed, is becoming increasingly unlikely. The project was nearly killed this week by Assembly members, who came close to voting down entirely the $4.9 million needed to continue construction.
The future of that project, which was spearheaded by the Bronson administration, remains tenuous. It awaits another Assembly vote on the funding in late October. Many Assembly members are skeptical or outright opposed to it, pointing to ballooning costs, a rushed timeline and a lack of critical information from the administration, such as a site study or an operating plan.
Even without the funding delay, it was not projected to be finished until spring, though Bronson officials said it could begin sheltering people at partial capacity in late November or early December.
Some members who belong to the Assembly’s moderate-to-liberal majority have indicated their votes on the funding will hinge on Bronson’s agreement to use the Golden Lion as an emergency shelter this winter. They also say he must make real efforts to convert the hotel into a substance abuse treatment center long-term. It’s a proposed project Bronson has long opposed, and his criticism of the purchase was a fundamental refrain of his campaign for mayor.
Assembly members attached a caveat to millions in funding set aside for the navigation center and shelter, requiring a firm written commitment and good-faith effort from Bronson to convert the former Golden Lion Hotel into a substance misuse treatment center.
Last week, Bronson announced 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 affect the property and has a “high likelihood” of a “total take of the property.”
However, at an Assembly meeting this week, the mayor indicated he may become more open to finding a use for the property, and said he is “open to meeting with the Anchorage Assembly to discuss what we’re going to do in the short and long term.”
For now, the Golden Lion sits unused. Broad support for its use as an emergency shelter this winter appears to be growing among Assembly members, including those who are generally more aligned with the conservative Bronson administration.
“As far as the Golden Lion, I just want to say that, listen, if we can use stadiums and we can use existing hotels and we can use campgrounds and we can use temporary structures, I don’t know why we can’t use the Golden Lion,” member Kevin Cross said during Tuesday’s Assembly meeting. “I’m not an attorney, and this isn’t a Holiday Inn, but it seems to me like, gosh, we own this thing and I’d really like to use it somehow.”