The Anchorage Assembly has voted to fund a $2.4 million plan to provide emergency winter shelter or housing for three months, beginning Oct. 1, for about 350 people who are homeless and living unsheltered in the city.
During a Monday special meeting, members directed the city to open 85 units of housing in the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel and a 150-bed emergency shelter in Sullivan Arena. Members also directed funding to private local shelters and homeless service providers to open more shelter beds.
But it’s up to Mayor Dave Bronson to implement the plan, and he has so far declined to say whether he will.
“There’s a lot to go through here. This is a complex plan. We have a lot of work to do and analysis with legal. So to your specific question, I simply can’t answer it in good faith tonight,” Bronson said in response to Assembly member Felix Rivera, who asked whether Bronson would veto the plan or work to implement it quickly.
Officials are under the pressure of a legal deadline to stand up emergency winter shelter when temperatures drop to 45 degrees, and as the scheduled closure on Friday of the city’s sanctioned homeless encampment at Centennial Park Campground rapidly approaches.
If the administration does not put the plan into action quickly, hundreds of Anchorage residents — living in tents, vehicles and under tarps in Centennial and elsewhere around the city — may be left to endure the wet, muddy conditions and dropping temperatures for weeks more.
Assembly members, in a 9-1 vote, approved the funding during the Monday meeting. Assembly member Jamie Allard voted against it, while member Austin Quinn-Davidson was not present.
Member Meg Zaletel recused herself and did not vote. She is executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, which led a community task force that the Assembly called up to recommend an emergency winter sheltering plan.
Bronson has seven days to issue a veto. He could veto all of it, or one or more specific funding items in the plan.
Members also approved sole-source contracts between the health department and local nonprofit Henning Inc. for operations of Sullivan Arena and Golden Lion, and sole-source contracts with Bean’s Cafe and Covenant House for expanding shelter capacity.
The Assembly approved using $1.2 million in alcohol tax funds and another $1.2 million it had previously directed to the city health department for emergency winter shelter.
The spending plan runs through Dec. 31. It includes:
• $1.5 million to Henning Inc. to run a 150-person, low-barrier congregate shelter in Sullivan Arena. Low-barrier shelters have few requirements and a person does not need to be sober to sleep there.
• $427,000 to Henning to operate the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown as 85 rooms of leased housing. This would house around 120 people.
• $200,000 to increase capacity at Covenant House for another 25 young adults.
• $306,000 to Bean’s Café to open a semi-congregate shelter for 40 adults.
The city has already funded an increase in capacity at Brother Francis Shelter downtown, which is slated to open 20 more beds by the end of the month.
Lack of low-barrier shelter space
Currently, no walk-in, low-barrier shelter exists in Anchorage for the first time in decades. The few beds available are in high-barrier, privately run shelters, requiring sobriety and sometimes a religious component, while low-barrier private shelters are full and have long waitlists.
The Assembly last month called upon an emergency shelter task force to quickly draft plans for winter after Bronson officials last month did not attend a meeting or provide detailed plans. At a meeting last week, the task force presented to the Assembly’s committee on homelessness its final recommendations for emergency shelter from Oct. 1 through the next 90 days. The committee then came to a consensus on the plan, which members have now voted to fund.
The only viable options for standing up shelter immediately are city-owned facilities, and the task force is continuing to vet other options that could be used instead within the next 90 days, Rivera said. The plan is to stand down the Sullivan Arena shelter first and as soon as possible, he said.
The fates of the former Midtown hotel and the downtown arena have become frequent flashpoints in bitter political clashes between the Bronson administration and the Assembly over homelessness policy.
For two years, the city used Sullivan Arena as a COVID-19 mass homeless shelter, until Bronson closed it at the end of June. The administration directed and bused dozens of homeless people who had been staying there to live in Centennial Park Campground in East Anchorage. Around 200 people now live there.
The city originally purchased the Golden Lion to become a substance abuse treatment center, a plan which Bronson has vocally opposed, and his criticism of the purchase was key to his campaign for mayor.
While support for using the Golden Lion as housing has grown among residents and even among Assembly members generally allied with Bronson, it’s unclear whether the mayor will agree.
Anchorage residents who spoke during a special committee meeting on the plan held Sunday and who spoke Monday all expressed a wide variety opinions. Many spoke in support of the plan as a whole. Several criticized the city for leaving the Golden Lion empty all summer while homeless residents have had to camp at Centennial.
“We need to house these folks soon. Winter is here, especially if you’re outside,” said resident Emily Creely. “People who are houseless are human beings. They are neighbors. Please put the use of the Golden Lion back into play. It’s needed. Everything is needed. To anyone opposing the use of existing structures being converted into shelters, I beg you see these people as your neighbors. Helping them makes our community stronger, not weaker.”
Others opposed using the Golden Lion or the Sullivan, or both.
Fears hinged on impacts to neighborhood safety in the areas around the city buildings. Some residents who live near Sullivan Arena spoke of frequent break-ins and theft, drug use and violence they witnessed and were victim to over the last two years. Many implored the city to come up with plans to mitigate impacts to neighborhoods and to provide better security.
Resident Kelly Lewis said Geneva Woods, a neighborhood in the former hotel’s vicinity, is home to many elderly residents.
“What is your plan to keep my mother safe, as well as her neighbors?” she said. “... Please know that if anything happens to my mother or her neighbors, I will hold all members of the Assembly and administration responsible for her safety.”
Rivera on Monday said he plans to introduce legislation soon to provide support services at both locations and help address impacts to the neighborhoods.
Some residents in opposition pointed to previous Assembly legislation on the building that said it could not be used for a homeless shelter, angry that the Assembly is now pushing to move homeless residents in.
Monday night’s debate among Assembly members exposed opposing philosophies on homelessness policy that have shaped the political rift between Anchorage’s elected leaders.
Assembly member and Bronson ally Allard, who opposed the sheltering plan, said homeless residents could choose to go to a high-barrier shelter with open beds.
She also said that using the Sullivan Arena for shelter is “taking away revenue from our community” and that the city needs to get it open for its normal uses, including as the home hockey rink for the city’s new Junior hockey team, the Anchorage Wolverines.
“We cannot use muni buildings to provide for anybody, in my opinion. It’s detrimental to the taxpayer and actually it’s detrimental to those who need help,” Allard said. “If they truly want help, they will go to facilities that have rules. If they don’t want help, their rock bottom might just be death, because that’s their choice, and it’s America, and they can decide what they want to decide.”
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant was swift to condemn her words.
“Do what I want or die. That was the testimony that I just heard,” he said.
Allard immediately protested his characterization of her statement:
“I said they should have the opportunity to do what they want to do. They have the choice. It’s either do what they want or they die. It’s up to them. It’s not up to me,” she said.
Constant argued that the state has reduced beds in mental health and treatment facilities while failing to provide community-based support services, and cut more than $100 million in funding support from the city.
“They’ve cut the supports and shifted the burden onto you and me and everyone else who lives in this municipality. And what’s left is people dying on our streets. People sick on our streets, and in our neighborhoods on our doorsteps and on our business stoops,” Constant said. “And who’s responsible for them? If nobody else is, we are. We have a duty to ensure that people are not dying in our streets. No matter what.”
The answer to moving out of a crisis response is housing, Constant said.
“We have a duty as leaders of this municipality, when no one else will step into the breach, to find a place for people to be housed so that we can provide treatment, so that we can help them get that hand up, so we can help them help themselves up,” he said.
While Assembly members broadly agreed that the city must find a way to move out of an emergency stance and advance long-term solutions such as treatment, their approaches differ.
Members Randy Sulte and Kevin Cross urged other Assembly members to fund construction of Bronson’s planned East Anchorage shelter and navigation center. The shelter would help fulfill emergency needs for winter shelter, they said.
“It’s critical,” Cross said. “We’ve spent so much time, and as you can see, we have high barrier shelters available, but we need to navigate people into them.”
It is already under construction, but members postponed a vote on funding for continued construction to Oct. 25.
“We do have to take care of this problem,” Sulte said. “And I’m hoping that you, this body, will be committed to providing that support, to going to community based support, to step into that breach, that on the 25th, that we’ll support the navigation center.”
Other members who say they see housing as a critical first step for recovery from homelessness and substance abuse are skeptical of a project they see as an expensive stopgap, rather than a solution.
Before individuals who are suffering serious substance abuse issues can go into a high-barrier shelter or treatment facility, they often first need to detox safely under medical supervision. But homeless services providers say that even when someone is ready to get sober, they often must wait for weeks or more than a month to get into a detox bed, which are relatively few compared to demand.
Bronson’s ambiguous stance on the Assembly’s winter shelter plan, even as winter looms, has sent frustration rippling among those who believe the city should take swift action, including several Assembly members.
“There was no need to close the Sullivan Arena as a mass care site. We wouldn’t be here today if it had stayed open,” Rivera said.
Bronson announced this month he would close Centennial Park Campground on Sept. 30. The city will close and lock the gate and the bathrooms and shut off the water to keep pipes from freezing, officials have said.
Because a federal court ruling says the city can’t clear homeless camps when no alternative shelter is available, it is likely some people will remain. And conditions for them will vastly worsen, homeless service providers and advocates have said.
“What do we do, if we do nothing? What happens? The answer is, people will die. They have died,” Rob Marx, director of client services at RurAL CAP and a member of the task force, said at the Sunday meeting.