Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration plans to ask the Assembly to approve an immediate increase of 160 beds at the city’s emergency winter homeless shelter in Sullivan Arena, which would bring the shelter’s total capacity to 360 people.
The administration sent Assembly members a resolution on Monday calling for the shelter’s expansion through March of next year. Bronson officials plan to introduce the measure for a vote during Tuesday’s Assembly meeting, according to the email.
“... At this time, all other low barrier facilities are operating at or near capacity and the Health Department Director believes it is necessary to increase the Sullivan Arena emergency shelter capacity to 360 clients,” the resolution said.
If the increase is approved, the city would make its “best efforts” to reduce the number of clients at Sullivan to 150 people or below, as other space becomes available in other emergency shelters or housing facilities, according to the resolution.
Recently, Sullivan Arena has been at its 200-person capacity, and its warming area each night is also full, according to the administration.
“This proposal allows for people already accessing the warming area to gain access to an actual bed, food, services, and ultimately a place to remain out of the elements. The warming facility has well over 150 clients a night that are being told to remain awake and told they cannot sleep throughout the night to comply with the current assembly ordinance,” Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said in a statement.
“The Mayor recognizes that there is absolutely no reason for this and is taking a stance on what is right by asking the Assembly to join him,” he said.
Assembly member Felix Rivera, who chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness, said he was surprised to receive the resolution. The administration did not have conversations with him before laying it on the table on Monday, and did not include information that helps provide context, he said.
Bronson officials did not answer a series of questions from the Daily News on Monday about the resolution and the city’s other emergency sheltering efforts, but sent Young’s statement providing some additional context.
However, some homeless service providers have given recent estimates of about 140 people living unsheltered in Anchorage currently, Rivera said.
Anchorage law requires the city to open emergency shelter when temperatures drop to 45 degrees. That law also limits emergency shelters to no more than 150 clients in one location without Assembly approval. In September, the Assembly approved a $2.4 million winter shelter plan that included opening Sullivan Arena for 150 people. They also directed directed the city to open 85 units of housing in the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel as part of that plan.
Bronson’s administration pushed back on using the Golden Lion with several legal objections and the Assembly turned instead to using 55 double-occupancy rooms the Spenard-area Alex Hotel and OK’d a surge capacity of 200 total people in Sullivan.
“I need to see proof from the administration that all other potential avenues have been exhausted — that they have cast a net far and wide to see if there are any other possibilities besides putting so many individuals in the Sullivan and basically recreating all of the issues that we’ve had in years past, and really putting a neighborhood on its back,” Rivera said.
The city used the arena as a COVID-19 mass homeless shelter for more than two years, until the Bronson administration shuttered it in June and sent homeless residents to live unsheltered in Centennial Park Campground.
Since the city reopened Sullivan, nearby residents and business owners have consistently raised concerns about public health and safety issues in the surrounding streets and parks. They say its impacting both the neighborhood and vulnerable homeless residents. Some have reported assaults, rapes, harassment, open drug use, and witnessing predation on homeless people. Some residents have discovered bodies or tried to resuscitate people.
The Fairview Community Council has called for the city’s help, and earlier this month the Assembly directed $400,000 for the administration to stand up security and trash cleaning services at three municipal properties and green spaces near Sullivan, starting in January.
Rivera said he doesn’t know what, if any, progress the administration has made so far toward implementing the services, and that he is not yet convinced that expanding the Sullivan shelter is truly the only option left for the city to shelter the dozens of people living outside
”But if it is, then I need to see from the administration a true effort to try to mitigate neighborhood impacts,” Rivera said. “They haven’t been very interested in the conversation so far. And we’ve tried to work with them on it. We’ve appropriated money to do it. And I don’t really know what’s happening.”
The administration did not respond to a question on Monday about the status of bringing the services online. Last week, a spokesman said the administration was “in the process of determining how to implement the approved funds.”
City-funded efforts to open more low income and supportive housing for homeless residents are underway, though each will likely take several months or more. The Rasmuson Foundation is pursuing the purchase of two Anchorage hotels for conversion into housing, with $12 million from the city.
Assembly members have continued to push Bronson to open the former Golden Lion Inn in Midtown as low-income leased housing for homeless and vulnerable residents.
Since his election, the mayor has blocked Assembly attempts to advance initiatives to use the building for any homeless services or as a substance abuse treatment facility, which the city originally purchased it for under the previous administration. (Bronson vocally opposed its purchase and his criticisms were a rallying cry for supporters and prominent funders of his campaign for mayor.)
Rivera said progress on converting the building into housing is now being made, but that it will take several months before the city could realistically lease rooms there.
Meanwhile, city-funded efforts to stand up more walk-in, low-barrier shelter have stalled. (A low-barrier shelter like the one in Sullivan Arena accepts just about anyone walking in off the street and sobriety is not required, though drugs, alcohol and weapons are not allowed on the premises.)
The Assembly in October rejected Mayor Dave Bronson’s plan to continue funding construction of a controversial homeless shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage. More than $6.5 million had already been sunk into the partially-constructed project. The Assembly halted it soon after the revelation that, against city code, Bronson officials authorized millions in construction work over the summer without first getting the required Assembly approval to increase the construction management contract by millions.