Anchorage

Anchorage may need to extend winter shelter use into spring as homelessness response remains in flux

december, homeless, homelessness, shelter, Sullivan Arena

Anchorage officials are warning that there are major challenges to address before the city can close its winter emergency shelters in April, despite efforts to open about 225 new affordable housing units in three former hotels in the coming months.

Even if all goes as planned and the hotels are converted into apartments quickly, hundreds of people currently staying in the city’s emergency winter shelters, including at Sullivan Arena, may have nowhere to stay if the facilities shutter as usual this spring, city officials said at a meeting Wednesday.

That means the city may need to keep some winter shelter beds open, possibly into the summer. The city is also struggling to find enough funding to keep its current winter sheltering efforts going — and to plan ahead for the next winter season.

There are about 625 people using emergency shelter that is either run or funded via the city: about 360 at the city’s congregate Sullivan Arena shelter, about 100 who are staying in rooms at the Alex Hotel, another 125 at the Aviator Hotel and about 40 teens and young adults staying each night in an overflow emergency shelter at Covenant House, according to city data.

[Previous coverage: Anchorage’s last COVID-era shelter is in a downtown hotel. The clock is ticking on its closure.]

Plus, more homeless residents are living elsewhere in the city, camping or staying in vehicles and visiting the city’s Sullivan Arena warming area periodically.

Meanwhile, the city is working to quickly find housing for all 125 people sheltering at the Aviator Hotel. That operation is incrementally winding down, as renovations to transform the building into a boutique hotel are underway. The city’s shelter there is slated to close by the end of March. By the first week of February, just 65 rooms will be available.

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Aviator Hotel, homeless, homelessness, portico

Whether the city keeps its other shelters open beyond April is “heavily dependent on funding,” Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless coordinator, said after the meeting.

“Right now, we don’t have adequate funding secured, but that’s not to say that we won’t.”

Unspent revenue from the city’s 2022 alcohol tax should cover the costs of sheltering up to April, but the city also has to fund and stand up emergency winter shelter again starting by October, Johnson said after the meeting.

At the moment, emergency sheltering costs are coming out of the Anchorage Health Department’s operating budget, she said.

The administration plans to ask the Assembly to continue sheltering a total of 360 at Sullivan Arena through the winter, she said. Assembly approval is required to go beyond the 150 capacity allowed in code, and members approved a measure raising capacity in December. That approval lasts through Jan. 27.

Former hotels coming online as shelters

Whether the city continues to use Sullivan Arena and the Alex Hotel as shelters also depends upon the timing of the coming hotel conversions, Johnson said.

Right now, there are three in the works: the city-owned Golden Lion in Midtown, which has 85 rooms; the 96-unit former Barratt Inn in Spenard; and another 45-unit former hotel in Spenard. The exact building has not yet been publicly disclosed because the sale has not closed.

Golden Lion, Golden Lion Hotel

The Golden Lion building will cost about $600,000 to repair, and the city estimates about four to six months to get it ready as leased housing, though it’s looking for ways to speed that up, Johnson said.

Earlier this month, Mayor Dave Bronson, who had long opposed using the Golden Lion as housing for homeless residents, changed course and said his administration was backing a plan to use the former hotel to house homeless and low-income residents.

A brand-new nonprofit was created at the end of 2022 to purchase and convert the other two hotels into housing, using $11.8 million in city funding and in collaboration with the Rasmuson Foundation.

The Anchorage Affordable Housing and Land Trust finalized its purchase of the Barratt Inn building using about $4 million, said the nonprofit’s chair, Victor Mollozzi, during the meeting Wednesday.

[Assembly members question whether city is violating law by paying road service contractors for snow removal in Anchorage Bowl]

It’s slated to close on the other Spenard-area hotel by the end of January, he said. Some rooms in both hotels should be ready for occupancy in February, he said.

(The land trust currently owns the former downtown-area GuestHouse Inn, the city’s first hotel-to-housing conversion. It is now 130 rooms of low-income housing. The city funded that purchase in a project partnership with Rasmuson and a branch nonprofit of the First Presbyterian Church.)

Even if those hotels are readied quickly, more than 400 people will still need shelter or housing, according to the city’s current shelter data.

“We have our facility contracts of various buildings here, but when those expire, if we haven’t come up with other housing units, I don’t know what other options they have other to extend,” Assembly member Kevin Cross said.

Future plans for Sullivan unclear

The Bronson administration does not yet have a demobilization plan for its emergency shelters, Johnson said.

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“I don’t have a deadline for you on the Sullivan (closing),” Johnson said, in response to a question from Assembly member Felix Rivera. The administration is beginning to plan and is meeting regularly with a task force on sheltering plans led by the Anchorage Coalition To End Homelessness, she said.

When Rivera asked whether the Bronson administration would ask to extend shelters beyond April, Johnson replied, “That is heavily dependent on finances, but ultimately it’s our goal to get people into housing. And so I don’t have a (demobilization) plan for you today, and unfortunately, I won’t be able to speak on where the population is going at this time,” she said.

The Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee plans to hold another meeting next week to discuss the city’s plans, Rivera said.

When the city closed the previous mass shelter in Sullivan Arena last June, the Bronson administration directed and transported homeless residents to live in tents or vehicles at East Anchorage’s Centennial Park Campground for the summer. It reopened a shelter in Sullivan at the end of September.

“I haven’t had any discussions on Centennial Campground, but I’d be happy to,” Johnson said when asked by Rivera whether the administration is considering using the East Anchorage park again.

Anchorage’s exact shelter utilization numbers are fluid as the individuals in the various shelters shift. People sometimes move from one shelter to another better suited for their needs. Some move into other services such as transitional housing or treatment, and many also move into housing. Some disappear from the Anchorage homeless service system entirely. Still, more people continue to become homeless and newly seek services, even as others find housing and free up shelter spots.

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Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at egoodykoontz@adn.com.

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