The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday called for the formation of two task forces to rapidly pursue short-term and longer-term homelessness solutions, following its unanimous approval last week of a measure that laid out a “demobilization plan” and set an April 30 closure date for winter emergency shelters.
Members unanimously passed two resolutions establishing the groups: One group will address how to best meet immediate needs of people with complex behavioral health issues as shelters close this spring and will make recommendations for longer-term solutions. The other will explore the possibility of setting up sanctioned camps, including code changes needed for shelter villages of prefabricated tiny homes or other modular structures.
About 600 people were using the city’s three shelters last week: a mass shelter in Sullivan Arena or in hotel rooms at the Alex and Aviator hotels.
Many clients at the city’s shelters are acutely vulnerable due to active severe mental illness, substance use disorders, medical needs and mobility issues — or a combination of these factors.
“I’ve been ringing the alarm, that there’s probably going to be a behavioral health crisis on our streets, and that we need to be getting ready for it,” said Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the Housing and Homelessness Committee and the member who drafted the resolutions.
“So we need to activate all of the resources we have available to us as a municipality, ensure we are collaborating with our community partners and we really need the state of Alaska to step up big-time,” he said.
The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness recently estimated about 300 people are already living unsheltered. Once shelters are closed, hundreds more will have nowhere to go, swelling the total to at least 700 to 800, the coalition estimated. Assembly member Meg Zaletel works in a separate role as the executive director of the coalition, and so recused herself from voting on Tuesday’s resolutions.
The behavioral health task force will work to identify all available local, state, federal, philanthropic and private resources to help with the transition out of emergency shelter, according to the resolution. Its meetings will be public, convened by Rivera and the chair of the Health Policy Committee, Assembly member Daniel Volland. The two committee chairs will invite an array of service providers and other organizations, Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration and city and state agencies to be part of the group, according to the measure.
The resolution calls for the group to deliver a report of immediate needs to Anchorage’s state legislators, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and “appropriate State of Alaska agencies” no later than May 30, and a report on mid- to long-term solutions by Aug. 31.
It also requires the task force make recommendations on immediate needs to the Assembly by June 1.
Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said that it’s time for the state to “fully engage” in the issue.
“Think it’s appropriate to declare a behavioral health emergency because clearly, the need here in our community has exceeded our local resources and we need the state’s help,” she said.
The other task force will look into possible locations for sanctioned camps, ways to mitigate impacts to neighborhoods and to keep clients safe, cost estimates, necessary changes to city code, and come up with a template operating plan, according to the resolution. It requires the group to provide a report to the Assembly by July 6.
That doesn’t mean the city will pursue a sanctioned camp project, Rivera said.
“I think we should at least explore it as as an Assembly, as a community, and see how and if we want to move forward with this idea,” he said.
He noted that many Assembly members and residents have voiced concerns about the idea, alluding to summer 2022, when Bronson abruptly closed Sullivan for a few months and transported many homeless residents to live outdoors in Northeast Anchorage’s Centennial Campground.
The administration provided homeless residents few resources at the campground. It saw numerous serious issues, including a lack of services, bears raiding camps, theft, violence, overdoses and deaths.
Earlier this year, Health Department officials suggested again using Centennial or another area as a sanctioned camp this summer, but with resources and homeless services on site.
A city law requires Anchorage to activate an emergency shelter plan when temperatures drop below 45 degrees in the fall. When temperatures warm, the city is no longer required to keep them open.
But vulnerable people may die on the streets if shelters close on April 30 without another option in place, homeless service providers at Sullivan Arena say.
Assembly members have indicated they may consider a proposal to shelter the most vulnerable beyond April 30.
About 174 people at Sullivan will be at “significant risk” when the shelter closes, according to an assessment sent to Assembly members this week by Restorative Reentry Services, the contractor the Assembly hired to provide third-party oversight of shelters and help in guiding their closure.
The contractor, with the help of a nonprofit the city hired to run the shelter, Henning Inc., surveyed 337 of about 350 people staying at Sullivan. (The survey did not include 100 or so other homeless people using a separate warming area in the arena.)
The city initially repurposed Sullivan Arena as a shelter in early 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as private shelters decreased their capacities due to health precautions. The arena was never intended to be a permanent solution and is far from ideal for homeless clients.
During a meeting last week, before voting to dismantle winter shelters by May, many Assembly members expressed frustration with the city’s continued reliance on the sports arena and the city’s lack of progress on permanent and effective solutions for homeless residents.
The Assembly’s voting bloc majority and the mayor have clashed repeatedly over homelessness policy since Bronson was elected in 2021 and rejected the previous administration’s homelessness plans. Several proposed projects quickly escalated into political flashpoints and stalled.