Anchorage is set to spend $400,000 to stand up security and trash cleaning services at three municipal properties near its emergency winter homeless shelter in Sullivan Arena, following pleas from community councils and residents calling on the city to address an influx of safety issues.
During a meeting last week, the Assembly passed a resolution directing the city to set up a service monitoring three areas: Chester Creek Sports Complex in Fairview, Peratrovich Park downtown and along a 1 1/2-mile stretch of the Chester Creek Trail, from Woodside Park to Arctic Boulevard. The measure calls for Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration to get the service operating no later than Jan. 2, to run through the winter until one week after the emergency shelter closes in the spring.
The security teams won’t duplicate enforcement work of the Anchorage Police Department, but will monitor areas and call for the appropriate response, such as 911 for a public safety issue, or 311 if a person appears to be incapacitated by substance misuse, said Assembly member Daniel Volland, who led the Assembly resolution alongside members Austin Quinn-Davidson and Forrest Dunbar. He said he envisions the service to be much like the Anchorage Downtown Partnership’s Safety Ambassadors, who help residents and businesses deal with issues, call responders and keep downtown clean.
“This is boots on the ground. This is eyes and ears. These are folks who can report and ideally keep a log, too, of where they go and what their concerns in these areas are — not only these locations, but also while traveling between locations,” he said.
It is up to the Bronson administration to implement the service, he said.
A spokesman for the mayor’s office said that “the administration is in the process of determining how to implement the approved funds” and that the city Parks and Recreation Healthy Spaces group is already cleaning the areas regularly.
The mayor’s office did not answer questions about the specifics of how the security service will work or how it might coordinate with emergency response and homelessness outreach groups.
Nearly 200 people are staying at Sullivan Arena, with another 60 or so people staying in its warming area each night.
Residents and business owners in the Fairview, North Star and downtown neighborhoods have consistently raised concerns about public health and safety issues in the streets and parks surrounding Sullivan Arena since the city reopened the facility as an emergency shelter at the end of September. Many say that both the neighborhood and vulnerable homeless residents are suffering unnecessarily. The Fairview Community Council sent the city a letter outlining its requests for help, including regular APD patrols, 24/7 emergency medical services, the fire department’s Mobile Crisis Team and police presence at the Sullivan, safe disposal cans for needles and nearby portable toilets and trash removal.
Some residents and business owners have discovered bodies or tried to resuscitate people. They’ve reported assaults, harassment, public exposure and indecency, trespassing, trash, open drug use and dirty needles, and large encampments in green spaces near the sports complex and along the trail.
Allen Kemplen, president of Fairview Community Council, commended the Assembly for taking action.
“While the Assembly has provided the resources, the administration has to actually spend the funds. So we’ll wait and see what the administration’s approach is going to be,” said Kemplen.
What the area really needs is street outreach services in the vicinity of Sullivan Arena, along with portable toilets, said SJ Klein, vice president of the Fairview Community Council.
“What we’re really hoping for, from the municipality, is a contractor who might be able to handle a security issue, but really are going into these places saying, ‘Hey, you can’t be here. Let’s figure out where you can go.’ That’s the big gap,” Klein said. “Between calling the fire department and calling the police, if somebody’s not intoxicated, or passed out, or about to die, and if they’re not doing something severely illegal, there’s nobody you can call and then there’s not really anything anybody can do.”
That’s not exactly what the security teams will do, Volland said. However, other services are coming online simultaneously, he said.
The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness is starting a big ramp-up of its street outreach work with a grant from the city, he said. Also, the administration and Assembly worked together to fund 24/7 operations of the fire department’s Mobile Crisis Team and the police department’s Mobile Intervention Team. The police department’s co-responder program sends a mental health clinician with an officer to law enforcement calls where mental illness may be involved. The fire department’s team sends a clinician with an EMT to behavioral health calls. The city is piloting the full-time operations of both for the coming year, he said.
“I’m excited about that,” Volland said. “... I think in the long term, that’s going to be more of a solution.”
Some community members have taken matters into their own hands, cleaning up graffiti, hiring security guards and driving the streets looking for people out in the cold who need help.
Klein said he hasn’t seen any action from the city that indicates Sullivan Arena will be returned to its former uses as an event venue and hockey arena anytime this winter, or that a long-term plan for emergency cold weather shelter is imminent. That’s frustrating, he said.
“I’m hopeful that we can, you know, at least get a little bit of help to people so that they’re not just predated on and freezing to death when they don’t want to go hang out at the Sullivan Arena. I am hopeful about that,” Klein said. “But that’s a pretty low bar for optimism.”
Kemplen said the funding is “a tourniquet to stop the bleeding” and will only buy the city some time. The city and community need to work together to come up with better options, like more substance misuse treatment, more housing and smaller shelters spread through the city, and more ways to address chronic homelessness, he said.
“What’s the game plan? What’s happening afterwards? Next summer?” said Kemplen. “We need a solution and we need a solution that works for the neighborhood, the people who are homeless and for the community at large.”