Mayor Dave Bronson and two Assembly members want the city to spend $7 million completing an East Anchorage homeless shelter in time for next winter.
The resolution will be formally introduced to the Assembly at its Tuesday night meeting, and asks for money from the municipality’s general fund to go toward finishing the sprung-tent structure near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads.
The proposal comes with baggage.
Initially envisioned by Bronson as a mass-care facility capable of sheltering up to 1,000 people in an enormous framed tent, with support services to guide people toward permanent housing options, the scale gradually diminished to a 150-bed facility. Last fall, major violations in procurement policy came to light, revealing the administration authorized its contractor to proceed with millions of dollars in construction work without getting the needed approval from the Assembly. Work stopped, and the project sat dormant all winter. The contractor is suing the city for the unpaid work.
In spite of that history, Eagle River Assembly Member Kevin Cross, one of the resolution’s sponsors, along with Randy Sulte of South Anchorage, believes recommitting to stand-up the new facility is the best option available to the city as it deals with hundreds of people camping outdoors with no low-barrier shelter options currently available. Both Sulte and Cross have been allied with Bronson in the past.
“We can have it done in 120 days, or we can continue to meet in meetings and do nothing for another year,” Cross said. “It’s ridiculous.”
He pointed out that a lot of labor and capital have already been sunk into the project: The site was identified as a solid option by an extensive canvas of potential shelter locations, the foundation is largely poured, the land is owned by the municipality, and the construction material is sitting in a warehouse.
According to the resolution, the “Tudor and Elmore site meets many of the ideal criteria such as location near medical, police and transportation services; and not immediately embedded in a neighborhood community.”
Though Cross was quick to concede the administration made mistakes in executing the project, he thought the need to bring more shelter capacity online is urgent enough to see past it.
“I hope that the new members on the body realize that it’s within our grasp to, within 120 days, have a facility that does not require us to reopen the Sullivan Arena in November … this is our only option, let’s be honest,” Cross said.
Last week, just as the emergency shelter inside the Sullivan Arena was winding down ahead of its complete closure at the end of May, the city’s homeless coordinator warned officials that without drastic action, the facility would likely need to be reopened to the homeless next winter.
The Assembly is pursuing a range of different short- and medium-term options for handling homelessness, including new efforts examining the possibility of sanctioned camp sites, land-use reform, and purchasing modular housing units.
But everyone involved in the issue sees a dire need for a low-barrier shelter by the time the weather starts getting cold in a few months. Citing a shelter operation plan from 2022, proponents of the Tudor and Elmore facility estimate it will cost around $6 million to serve 150 clients with a surge capacity of 50 more beds.
Assembly Chair Christopher Constant, who has pressed the Bronson administration for more transparency and improved collaboration, said the proposal is too vague to sign off on without more details and planning.
“This administration cannot be trusted with a blank check to open such a complex operation without oversight,” said Constant, adding that his requests for more specific cost breakdowns have not been met.
Though the administration has consistently called the proposed facility a navigation center, designed to guide clients out of homelessness and into housing, employment, drug treatment, and other options, Constant said he has seen nothing differentiating it from a “mass congregate shelter, leaving much to be desired from a service recipient perspective. From a neighborhood perspective. All around.”
Constant also said there were other procedural flaws in the measure’s current form, including that the $7 million requested for appropriation exceeds the amount allowable without holding a public hearing.