Bronson administration no longer considering Centennial campground as option for homeless residents this summer

Mayor Dave Bronson’s homeless coordinator said Friday that opening a sanctioned homeless encampment at Centennial Park Campground is no longer on the table, after a frosty reception this week from Anchorage Assembly members to the Health Department’s proposal for possible summer homelessness plans.

Homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson and another health department staff member on Wednesday presented the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness with a list of options, which included funding a “safe sleeping site” — a staffed and resourced sanctioned camping area — and continuing to use Sullivan Arena as a large shelter.

“I think that the consensus was that we just aren’t ready to have the conversation,” Johnson said. “The Assembly is the appropriating body and we would need proper finances to make a sanctioned camp, and if they don’t support it at the Housing and Homelessness Committee meeting, they’re obviously not going to support finances for that type of project. So I think moving forward, a sanctioned camp — we should still continue to have that discussion, but I just don’t think we’re ready for it right now.”

Assembly members and Meg Zaletel, the head of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, who is also an Assembly member, had criticized officials for what they said would bring little forward progress toward housing people and a return to a potentially dangerous mass encampment that saw numerous issues last year, including bears raiding camps, a lack of services, crime, overdoses and deaths. Bronson abruptly shuttered the Sullivan Arena shelter and moved people to the East Anchorage campground at Centennial Park last June.

Eight Alaska state legislators representing the East Anchorage area sent a letter to Bronson earlier this week, urging the mayor to immediately reject the proposal. The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Bill Wielechowski, Löki Gale Tobin and Forrest Dunbar; Democratic Reps. Cliff Groh, Genevieve Mina, Andrew Gray and Donna Mears; and Republican Rep. Stanley Wright.

“Not only would such an action be a clear and knowing violation of municipal law, but as the humanitarian crisis at Centennial Park last year sadly demonstrated, it would be unsafe and inhumane for campers and neighboring residents,” lawmakers said in the letter.

To allow long-term camping at Centennial would require a change to city code that the Assembly rejected last summer, they said.


“Last summer’s debacle at Centennial Park showed that operating a long-term campground for residents experiencing homelessness in a heavily wooded area away from the city center only leads to tragedy. The people displaced at Centennial Park were ill-equipped for Anchorage’s inclement weather, there were no supportive services for them within walking distance, long-term camping in wooded areas inevitably attracted bears leading to 5 bears being killed, and the lack of proper security put these struggling Alaskans and neighborhood residents in danger,” they said.

[Mayor Bronson refuses to turn over documents in Anchorage Assembly subpoena]

Johnson said what she brought forward as an option was far different from last year’s camp, which was “a mix of good and bad,” she said, but was also seen as a “blessing” by many people. (Homeless campers over the summer had wide range of opinions: Some said they were happy to have a place to legally camp while others said they felt unsafe, unprepared and suddenly cut off from resources.)

The proposal “was Centennial with the funding and the resources thrown at it, which, that was the opinion I felt we had last year when Centennial was opened — you know, this could be good if the resources were thrown at it, " Johnson said.

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.

The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness’ recent “gap analysis” found that the city needs 1,864 permanent housing units, including more than 500 units of supportive housing and more than 500 for rapid rehousing, and more than 850 low-income independent rental units. Anchorage needs a total year-round capacity of 221 shelter beds for single adults, families and young people, and 52 transitional housing units, the coalition’s analysis found.

The city is making progress. Three coming hotel conversions are slated to open 226 units of low-income housing over the next several months.

Housing is the key to solving homelessness, and housing must come first, Zaletel told the committee this week.

[Anchorage Assembly rejects large-scale housing project in Girdwood, saying it can’t trust Bronson administration to implement it]

“The strategy is the same if it’s 10 people, 100 people, 1,000 people or 5,000 people — we meet each person where they are and we work toward housing. We just have to have the will to have the housing units and enough capacity for the supportive services,” Zaletel said.

Johnson said she also believes housing is the priority, but that she is focused on what to do in the meantime.

“We’re going to have to have the conversation of, OK, well, what next, if not a sanctioned camp? And if not the Sullivan?” Johnson said.

Several Assembly members this week had also indicated they would not support continued operation of a shelter at Sullivan because of the large burden on the surrounding neighborhood and because a mass shelter environment is also difficult for its homeless clients.

“What do we do with 650-plus people who are not sheltered beyond April 30?” Johnson said.

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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