The Anchorage Assembly voted unanimously Tuesday night to raise capacity at the city’s largest homeless shelter, inside Sullivan Arena.
The vote, which passed 10-0, followed an acrimonious back-and-forth between Assembly members, Mayor Dave Bronson and some from his administration.
“This decision was already made for us,” said Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant, who represents the Fairview neighborhood, which shoulders the bulk of the city’s homeless services, including the emergency winter shelter inside the Sullivan.
Constant ripped into the mayor for circumventing explicit city rules that capped capacity inside the building after his administration reopened the facility, months after shutting it down and directing people experiencing homelessness to a public campground in East Anchorage. In recent weeks, heavy snow and plummeting temperatures have pushed more people in search of shelter within the temporary warming area at Sullivan Arena, and the building has been filled far above its approved capacity. Bronson’s now-former city manager Amy Demboski, who was abruptly replaced Monday, on Tuesday made public an email showing she told the mayor last week that the number of people using Sullivan Arena violated code.
“I was embarrassed,” James Thornton of the Fairview Community Council said at the meeting about a recent tour of the facility. “Folks sleeping on the floor like sardines.”
The Assembly’s vote clears the shelter to accommodate 360 people a night, nearly doubling the 200-person cap that was previously in place.
It was a move several Assembly members said they were reluctant to support, in part because the surrounding neighborhood is already seeing more problems connected with surging demand at the shelter.
“I don’t think we should increase capacity,” Thornton said. “However, right now we need to focus on those in need as a priority.”
Ultimately, all 10 Assembly members in attendance conceded that there is nowhere else to go amid subzero temperatures, with all other shelters in the municipality at maximum capacity.
The Assembly added an amendment to the measure specifying that it is temporary, lasting through Jan. 27, 2023.
The vote followed an hour of contentious back-and-forth remarks, with Assembly members faulting Bronson and his administration for poor communication, a lack of planning and violating code to squeeze more people into the building.
“We would not, yet again, be back here in an unacceptable facility that is, frankly, a disgrace,” East Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar said of Bronson’s policy decisions.
Dunbar asked Bronson why, if there was a crisis of surging demand for homeless services in the last few weeks, he did not declare an emergency to unlock more shelter options.
“At the end of the day, winter isn’t an emergency. Cold weather in Alaska’s not an emergency. We had to take quick action,” Bronson said. “So at the end of the day I was forced into a moral dilemma, and I took the one that protected people in cold weather.”
“Then I recommend that next time you take the legal action,” Dunbar said.
Two weeks ago, the administration hastily filed its initial request to increase shelter capacity inside Sullivan Arena, but took none of the steps to secure an Assembly sponsor or shepherd the measure through. Afterward, Bronson shared a video on social media showing people sleeping on the floor of the shelter’s warming area.
“The Assembly chose to keep nearly 160 people sleeping on the floor of the Sullivan Arena. This is wrong,” the mayor’s tweet said. “They had the opportunity to provide a semblance of human dignity by giving folks a cot & warm place to sleep & they chose otherwise. Is this the Anchorage we want?”
“Where the frustration comes from … is two weeks ago we came to the Assembly and were asked to take a pause,” Alexis Johnson, the city’s homelessness coordinator, said at the meeting. “We took the pause and we ended up in the same exact place.”
Multiple Assembly members faulted the mayor’s administration for how it handled the capacity expansion proposal and its aftermath.
“You all do something last-minute, sit around, don’t do anything about it,” Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson said. “And then expect us to vote on something without any knowledge of it. And frankly it feels like amateur hour.”
On Wednesday, Bronson said on social media the process to expand capacity at the Sullivan Arena had not begun, asserting that “instead of making this effective immediately, we must wait five days to provide folks in the warming area a bed to sleep on and warm food to eat.”
“This arbitrary timeframe is cold and heartless, especially during this Christmas season,” the mayor said, faulting the Assembly.
In a text message, member Felix Rivera, chair of the Assembly’s housing and homelessness committee, said the mayor was incorrect and the city is able to raise capacity at Sullivan immediately.
“No there isn’t a five day delay,” he said, saying the administration needed to “look at the data for the last five days and if it indicates that there is a 90% capacity then they’re able to turn on the surge.”
Rivera added, “that data does show that they have reached the 90% capacity. So there should be no delay at all.”
Johnson, the homelessness coordinator under Bronson, did not return messages seeking comment Wednesday afternoon.