The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday declined to consider Mayor Dave Bronson’s last-minute proposal to immediately increase the city’s emergency winter homeless shelter capacity in Sullivan Arena from 200 to 360 people.
On Monday, the Bronson administration sent Assembly members a resolution ahead of Tuesday’s Assembly meeting calling for the shelter’s immediate expansion through March of next year.
The mayor said nothing about the proposal during his opening comments at Tuesday night’s meeting and did not speak to urge members to consider it later in the meeting. Now, the mayor is slamming the Assembly in social media posts for not taking action.
Assembly members say they were blindsided by a sudden proposal with no prior communication or data from the administration about a surge in need for single adult shelter space.
No Assembly members Tuesday moved to introduce Bronson’s resolution for a discussion and vote. That means the administration must put the proposal on the regular agenda for a meeting later this month if officials want the Assembly to consider it. (In order for Assembly members to consider last-minute proposals for immediate action, two Assembly members must move to formally introduce it. Then, members must vote on whether to consider the proposal during the meeting. Items such as this one need eight votes just to on the night’s agenda.)
A spokesman for the mayor’s office said that a warming area at Sullivan, which is separate from the shelter, has been regularly full.
The warming area is inside the arena, on the building’s north side on the mezzanine level, upstairs from the rows of cots lining the floor, where the majority of the shelter’s clients sleep. It’s a space open to anyone needing to get out of the cold.
Officials and the nonprofit contracted by the city to run the shelter say 160 people used the warming area on Monday.
Yet the organization overseeing and tracking data for Anchorage’s homelessness response system — including private shelters and services along with the city’s — says its data doesn’t match what the Bronson administration says is needed at Sullivan. It shows the shelter has been operating under its capacity most nights in the last month.
In an emailed statement, Bronson criticized the Assembly for not taking action.
“Tonight, the Assembly chose to keep nearly 160 people sleeping on the cold, concrete floor of the Sullivan Arena. This decision is immoral and wrong,” Bronson said. “They had the opportunity to provide these individuals a semblance of human dignity by giving them a cot and warm place to sleep during the cold winter months, and they chose otherwise.”
Bronson also posted a video of the warming area to his Facebook on Tuesday evening. It shows dozens of people lying on the concrete floor.
Assembly member Felix Rivera, who chairs the Committee on Housing and Homelessness, said things just aren’t adding up.
“The administration is putting forward something at the 11th hour and pushing us to vote ’yes’. And if we don’t vote ‘yes,’ then blaming us, even though the administration put no effort at all into trying to inform us so that we can make wise policy decisions,” he said.
“It’s all just smoke and mirrors from the administration,” Rivera said. “Unless they’re able to be transparent about the information they have with the Assembly, the policymakers, with the providers, who are in charge of managing the system, then how are we supposed to make any type of decision?”
Assembly members say that if the need is truly dire, the mayor could himself take action to open up more emergency shelter beds at Sullivan.
“If he believes it’s an emergency, and he wants action today, he has the ability — like has been done before — to declare a civil emergency,” Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said.
Bronson “deferring to us with a last-minute document making a massive demand which he knows we said ‘no’ to” just raises more questions, Constant said.
The mayor recently vetoed $1.2 million in funding for another, privately run low-barrier shelter, which the Assembly voted to overturn on Tuesday. Between the request for more beds at Sullivan and the veto of funding for beds at another shelter, the administration’s policy and messaging is conflicting, Rivera said.
“It just doesn’t make sense. It’s not congruent,” he said.
‘We need them inside’
An Anchorage law requires the city to open emergency cold weather 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.
According to Bronson’s resolution, the city would make its “best efforts” to reduce the number of clients at Sullivan to 150 people or below, as space becomes available in other emergency shelters or housing facilities, according to the resolution.
Several Assembly members said Bronson’s request came as a surprise because they’d received no communication from the administration about strained capacity at Sullivan and a need for more single-adult shelter.
Likewise, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness said it was taken aback by the request. The coalition meets regularly with top Health Department officials to share information and discuss the city’s current emergency shelter operations at Sullivan and at the Alex and Aviator Hotels, where homeless residents are staying in hotel rooms.
An issue with capacity had not been raised, the coalition said in a letter to the Assembly Tuesday.
The organization oversees Anchorage’s homelessness response system. It tracks data collected by service providers, coordinates resources and work between organizations, and provides guidance.
Recent data on the number of beds used each night at the arena shows that the arena has largely been operating below capacity, at around 170 people during November, the coalition said in the letter.
“ACEH and providers have been meeting regularly with Anchorage Health Department and a capacity issue has not been raised,” the coalition’s executive director, Meg Zaletel, said in the letter.
The coalition’s data also does not indicate that more shelter for single adults is needed, she said in the letter.
The organization asked the Assembly to postpone considering the resolution until its next meeting on Dec. 20, so it can review data from the homeless service providers at Sullivan and collaborate.
Zaletel is also an Assembly member, representing Midtown. Because the coalition had taken an official stance on the matter, she recused herself and left the room before the other members declined to consider Bronson’s request Tuesday night.
“The data is showing that the 150+50 surge needs to continue. An initial review of bed nights at low-barrier shelter sites indicates usage below capacity. Further analysis in partnership with providers and (the Anchorage Health Department) is needed to determine the next steps,” she said.
But Shawn Hays, the executive director of the nonprofit running the Sullivan shelter and warming area, disagreed. On Monday night, 168 people stayed in the warming shelter, Hays said.
They don’t have a cot to sleep on in the warming area, and only snacks and hot coffee are available from donations that the nonprofit Henning Inc. has solicited, she said. Hays attended the meeting to explain the situation at Sullivan to the Assembly but did not get the chance.
Standing inside the Loussac Library’s main entrance on Tuesday night, Hays was visibly upset.
“Why are we putting data over people? Why are we allowing people to lay on concrete and having to, you know, to wake them up because they can’t sleep there?” Hays said.
“We need them inside. We need them to be able to sleep. We need them to get a hot meal. We need them engaged in case management,” she said.
Rivera said he doesn’t doubt that more shelter is needed. “We just need to have a conversation about what that need is and the best resources to tackle that need,” he said.
Some people who use warming areas don’t want to stay in a mass shelter and return to a camp when weather improves. Others may be better served in a youth or family shelter facility. Some want a hotel room or a direct route to housing, according to homeless experts and interviews with unsheltered residents.
In an interview on Wednesday, Hays shared data from the Sullivan’s warming area for the last six days. The counts show the total number of individuals who check into the area in a 24-hour period.
The highest occurred on on Dec. 3, when 178 people used the warming area; the lowest was Dec. 2, at 103 people.
Recently shelter has been consistently full, Hays said, though numbers can be fluid as people come and go. For a six-day span between Nov. 21 and 27, the shelter saw 266 individual clients, she said.
Arena shuttered then re-opened
The Assembly and the Bronson administration have had numerous heated clashes over homelessness policy since the mayor took office.
Many Assembly members, homelessness experts and local providers say the city needs smaller shelters scattered throughout the city to better target services and to lessen impacts to neighborhoods. Bronson has advocated for the city to build one large, low-barrier shelter in East Anchorage — a project the Assembly has since killed.
Against city code, Bronson officials authorized millions in construction work over the summer without first getting the required Assembly approval. In October, members rejected continued funding for the shelter’s construction, after the administration sank more than $6.5 million into it.
The city has been strapped for low-barrier shelter options for months.
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 directed homeless residents to live unsheltered in Centennial Park Campground.
With an estimated 350-plus people living unsheltered in the city over the summer, officials scrambled to come up with emergency winter shelter options. The Bronson administration did not produce plans in a timely way, and when it did, it scrapped Bronson’s plans because they weren’t viable. His proposed options could not be implemented quickly or were widely opposed by residents.
The Assembly then called upon the coalition to convene a task force of providers, city officials and others with a stake in the matter. The group was tasked with finding viable options to shelter people swiftly.
With few immediate solutions, the city again turned to the arena, which was empty and undergoing repairs. In September, the Assembly approved a $2.4 million winter shelter plan that included opening Sullivan Arena for 150 people.
The Assembly later approved a surge capacity of 50 more people, for a total of 200 at Sullivan.
Since it reopened, nearby residents and business owners have clamored for the city’s help to address serious public health and safety issues in the surrounding streets and parks. They’ve reported impacts to both the neighborhood and vulnerable homeless residents. Some neighbors of Sullivan have discovered bodies or tried to resuscitate people.
In response, 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.