At a special meeting on Monday at City Hall, the Anchorage Assembly advanced three hastily crafted measures that in the weeks ahead are intended to secure an additional 270 shelter beds, primarily by using rooms in a Spenard hotel and the city-owned Golden Lion building in Midtown. Given the imminent arrival of freezing temperatures, elected officials insist emergency measures are warranted to secure more indoor shelter space.
Whether to implement those proposed measures is a decision that will fall on Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration and municipal departments.
The Municipality of Anchorage is lacking a plan for how to handle its hundreds of homeless residents as cold, wet winter weather gets closer and closer. After shuttering the large emergency shelter inside Sullivan Arena that was in use for more than two years earlier this summer and directing people to the sparse Centennial Campground on the other side of town, the Bronson administration ultimately reversed policy over the weekend, with municipal officials overseeing the reinstallation of more than a hundred people back in the Sullivan after transporting many of them there from Centennial.
“As of this morning, we have 103 people,” said Bronson administration homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson of the emergency shelter inside the Sullivan. “The remaining people at Centennial have expressed they will not be going to the Sullivan Arena.”
Anchorage is approaching a dangerous situation: For months, city policy directed people to stay at an outdoor campground and ceased all abatement of unlawful encampments along public parks and trails. Now, with winter approaching, the municipality is trying to coax campers back indoors, but without enough emergency shelter beds or housing units to meet the outstanding need.
“I know that things appear chaotic on the surface. And in truth, there is a fair amount of chaos as we implement the Assembly’s emergency shelter plan,” wrote Housing and Homelessness Committee Chair Felix Rivera in a note read aloud by Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance at Monday’s meeting. Rivera was absent, having spent both days of a pre-planned, out-of-state vacation over the weekend drafting the proposals that were under consideration, Assembly members said. As members convened to discuss the measures, he was in the air traveling back to Anchorage.
Assembly members set three new measures in motion. The most straightforward was adopting a provision that allows Sullivan Arena to increase its current capacity limit from 150 up to 200 beds under certain criteria, if demand for emergency shelter surges this winter. Another measure secures 50 double-occupancy rooms at the Alex Hotel and Suites in Spenard, though officials delayed appropriating funds to pay for a third-party operator until a contractor can be identified and vetted.
Also delayed is an ordinance to spend funds using the former Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown as an emergency shelter, which is set for public testimony at the Assembly’s Oct. 11 meeting.
Throughout the meeting, Assembly members told the Bronson administration in blunt terms they are frustrated with the current dynamic.
“We act, and we act, and we act, and our acts are rejected, and rejected and rejected,” said member Christopher Constant to representatives of the Bronson administration. “You have not shown up with a single plan that demonstrates your commitment to moving forward this effort, except to say ‘we will not do that.’”
“I know this is a tense situation,” said Bronson’s chief of staff, Adam Trombley. What the legislative and executive branches are aligned on, he said, is wanting a long-term fix to the issue of homelessness. “Shelter is not a solution. Housing is a solution.”
“I feel that I don’t know what the plan is,” said member Austin Quinn-Davidson. “Genuinely. I don’t know what your plan is.”
“We want to come to the table with something we know will work long-term,” Trombley said. “We hope that what the Assembly comes up with we can vet it.”
“What I’m hearing you say,” Quinn-Davidson said, “is that the administration is not attempting to put together a plan. They are waiting for the Assembly to put together a plan.”
“Our plan, all along, has been a navigation center. That hasn’t happened,” replied Trombley, referring to a controversial proposal from the Bronson administration for a domed tent structure in East Anchorage, initially envisioned to shelter close to a thousand people with resources on-site for guiding people toward permanent housing. The fate of a scaled-down version of that project is now uncertain, with the Assembly set to vote on the millions of dollars in funding it will need for completion later this month.
Other recent ideas from the administration, including repurposing community rec centers in Fairview and Spenard as shelters, and using 20 bare-bones modular buildings owned by the school district, quickly collapsed after community pushback and due diligence.
“I feel this constant pressure where the Assembly is being asked to shoulder coming up with a plan and the administration is saying, ‘well our hands are tied by the Assembly,’” said Assembly member Forrest Dunbar.
For two years now, the Golden Lion has been a lightning rod in local politics, used as a rallying target for conservative critics of the last administration, many of whom became prominent supporters and financial funders of Bronson’s campaign for mayor. While the municipality already owns the building, and though the administration paid utility costs and waived rent last winter to a for-profit medical business charging residents for monoclonal antibodies administered there, the mayor has consistently obstructed efforts to provide homeless assistance or substance abuse recovery services at the former Golden Lion.
Dunbar said he was skeptical of expanding shelter capacity at Sullivan Arena before any firm commitment is in place to utilize rooms at the Golden Lion.
“My concern with this interim plan is if we pass it, it will become a permanent plan,” Dunbar said. “They will not take any substantive steps to turn on the Golden Lion, which had broad Assembly support.”
The administration released guidance from its legal department last week concluding it could not use the Golden Lion for permanently housing homeless residents because of land-use stipulations.
Under the city’s purchase of the Golden Lion in 2020, it is barred from using the building for as a “homeless and transient shelter” as defined under Title 21 of the municipal code, the city Department of Law said in the memo. The Assembly, however, asserts in its proposed ordinance the building would be used on a temporary basis as an emergency measure, and as such falls under a different section of code. Under the proposal, that emergency authorization would expire at the end of April 2023.
The emergency, in this case, according to Assembly Counsel Dean Gates: “Winter’s coming. Weather’s getting cold.”