Officials with Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration said Wednesday that Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena may have to stay open as a homeless shelter through the summer — or that the city may again open Centennial Park Campground or another area as a 150-person sanctioned homeless encampment.
Those are just two location possibilities among others included in the three different emergency winter shelters demobilization options that Bronson officials presented to the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness at Wednesday’s meeting.
The administration’s plans were met with scorn from some Assembly members and the head of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, who is also an Assembly member. They criticized officials for what they said would result in a continuation of the status quo, with little forward progress toward housing people, or a return to another potentially dangerous mass encampment.
After Bronson abruptly shuttered the Sullivan Arena shelter and moved people to Centennial last June, the campground saw a host of issues, including bears raiding camps, a lack of services, theft, violence, overdoses and deaths, and a shootout between police and a man they said they were trying to detain.
Anchorage city leaders are trying to figure out what comes next for the 550 to 650 people using its current emergency winter shelters at Sullivan Arena, the Alex Hotel, Aviator Hotel and other locations for young people and families. When temperatures rise above 45 degrees, city code no longer requires the shelters to stay open.
Right now, the city plans to shutter its emergency winter shelters on April 30, though Sullivan is on the table as a possibility for continued shelter, Bronson officials said.
Several Assembly members said they would not consider continuing to use Sullivan as a shelter and that it should be returned to its previous use. But they also expressed concerns about returning homeless residents to Centennial.
“It feels like the plan is just to spend a s--- ton of money moving people back and forth, forever, I guess,” Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson said, adding that the only progress made since Bronson took office has been largely the work of private organizations. “... It’s just so frustrating to sit here and imagine shipping people off to a place that’s cold, where people literally died. I just, I can’t believe this is all you all have accomplished. Honestly, it’s really sad.”
Bronson officials said few options exist that could be activated in the next three months to house or shelter all of the people who have been using winter shelters. Either the city must keep the Sullivan open as a 360-person shelter or reduce its size to 150 — or open a different 150-person shelter site — and simultaneously open a “safe sleeping site,” said Alexis Johnson, homeless coordinator with the city Health Department.
“Centennial is not part of a plan,” Johnson said. “I just want to have the discussion about an outdoor safe sleeping site, if that’s the will of the community. If it is not, and Anchorage is not ready for an outdoor camp, then Centennial will not be stood up.”
Under the administration’s three plan options, which account for between 300 and 360 people, the city would not have enough shelter or sleeping sites for everyone, she said.
“Even with that, you’re looking at roughly a delta of 200 people going unsheltered and unhoused,” Johnson said.
On average, Anchorage’s emergency shelters sleep 566 people a night — and 650 at peak.
“Right now, as far as how many people are in the Sullivan and our options, continuing the Sullivan is the only congregate shelter option that we see moving forward beyond summer,” Johnson said.
Administration pitches different approach to sanctioned camping
The Bronson administration has three possible plans:
• Keep open a 150-person shelter in Sullivan Arena, with no warming area, costing around $354,000 per month, according to the officials’ presentation. Another 21 people would stay in the Aviator Hotel, at $111,000 per month — a high cost due to the number of staff still needed on site. The city would open a “safe sleeping area,” or sanctioned encampment, for 150 people, costing about $402,000 per month. The entire cost would be about $867,000 per month for this option.
• Keep open a 150-person shelter in Sullivan Arena and open a sanctioned encampment of the same size. Bronson officials estimate the second option would cost $756,000 a month.
• Keep Sullivan Arena open as a 360-person shelter. This would cost about $604,000 a month, with the same level of services on-site, Bronson officials said.
“Last year we saw 280 people at Centennial. We learned a lot from that campground and now, if Anchorage is ready to have a safe sleeping area, these are the things that we would like to bring forward to make it the safest, best place for people to camp if they so choose,” Johnson said. “We will not be busing people out of Sullivan to Centennial campground or any safe sleeping area. This is a client choice. And we will not be shutting down the Sullivan and opening a safe sleeping site in lieu of that.”
“I can’t help but see this plan in the light of going out to Centennial Campground last year. I think that this plan of trying to continue to use the Sullivan Arena and camping perpetuates a system of instability and trauma for the people experiencing homelessness,” Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Meg Zaletel said. Zaletel is also an Assembly member from Midtown.
Johnson said that this time, the administration wants to do it differently, using “best practices” of sanctioned campgrounds in the Lower 48.
Those practices include small, scattered sites of no more than 150 people; a 1-to-15 staff-to-client ratio and a 1-to-20 ratio for care coordinators who help guests with housing plans; laundry services; regular wellness checks; and a perimeter of fencing with an alarmed exit, officials said.
Assembly members sharply questioned the fencing, including its optics and the psychological impact it would have on homeless residents camping there.
The fencing is necessary to protect the residents from anyone trying to break in or to prey on vulnerable individuals, Health Department staff member Michael Hughes said.
“When I first got into research and I saw that all the safe sleeping areas across the country that exist were fenced, it was, optics-wise, strange to me too,” he said.
To use a site other than Centennial, such as another park, a parking lot or other land, a change to the city code would be needed, Johnson said.
Zaletel denounced the idea of another sanctioned camp, especially with the high cost — funding that should be used to focus on getting people into housing, she said.
Johnson, in an interview later Wednesday, said that the administration’s priority remains housing.
“Until those housing units become available, we do have to grapple with continuing or discontinuing shelter space and capacity,” she said.
Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the committee, said that he’s not opposed to sanctioned camps, but the options Bronson officials presented are not realistic.
“There has to be a lengthy community process and co-planning process with the people who are going to actually inhabit sanctioned camps in order to make it work. I don’t think they’re doing any of that,” he said.
The Fairview and downtown neighborhoods have long borne the burden of a mass shelter at Sullivan, and it’s time to “end that chapter permanently and focus on the real solutions,” Rivera said.
Members Kevin Cross and Daniel Volland both said they would not support keeping a shelter at Sullivan.
“I guess the question is, what now? If not the Sullivan — where?” Johnson said in the interview.
Housing in the works
Johnson also said an unnamed donor also has offered to buy the former Alaska Native Charter School and lease it to the city for five years as a 150-person shelter and navigation center. She declined to say who had made the offer.
Skeptical Assembly members said they need more information about that possibility before realistically pursuing it, especially information about who the city would be making the deal with.
Zaletel said the city should consider using the former Arctic Rec Center in Midtown, which is for sale and could be quickly turned into a 120-person shelter and resource center. It also comes with land that is connected to utilities — and could be developed — and is in a zone that allows housing, she said.
Several other Assembly members expressed support for that idea and standing it up quickly.
A few hotel conversion projects are on the brink of completion and will eventually become 226 units of low-income housing.
Fifty rooms in the Barratt Inn will be ready around May 1, with another 45 that will eventually be opened as housing. Around March 31, 45 rooms will be opened as housing in the Lakeshore Inn. Both Spenard-area hotels were purchased by the newly formed nonprofit Anchorage Affordable Housing and Land Trust via the Rasmuson Foundation, using funding from the city.
The Assembly has directed Bronson to open the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel as housing, which would add 85 units of low-income housing. That hotel conversion won’t be ready until sometime between July and September, Johnson said.
Quinn-Davidson expressed further frustration with that, saying that the administration is “just stalling” and that there is money available for its renovation.
Bronson had long opposed using the Golden Lion as housing for homeless residents, promising to sell the building while on his campaign trail. He changed course last month and said his administration was moving forward with a plan to use the former hotel to house homeless and low-income residents.