A new proposal going before the Anchorage Assembly could create sanctioned camp zones across the municipality to offer basic services and security to homeless people with no other shelter options.
The idea, long brought up in city discussions of how to handle homelessness, is the focus of a task force that recently convened as officials, advocates and residents scramble to find new solutions this summer. On Monday, the Sanctioned Camp Community Task Force came out with a draft measure recommending a plan for five sanctioned camps. Members cautioned that it was a starting point, not a final set of recommendations.
A motion to introduce the resolution and take action at Tuesday’s Assembly meeting failed; members could put it on the agenda for introduction at the next Assembly meeting.
If the city eventually creates sanctioned camp zones, it would represent a dramatic change in how Anchorage handles homelessness, formalizing the seasonal swell of encampments that speckle the city’s greenbelt, consolidating them in designated areas spread through town and promising basic services are available there.
“I think it’s important because of security for everyone, all community members, including the unsheltered,” said Caroline Storm, one of the task force members who had a hand in drafting the resolution. “What is happening now is untenable from both sides. The unsanctioned camping is unsafe for folks, and they don’t have the ability to have services come to them in a more organized fashion.”
[Mayor renews push for East Anchorage shelter with $7M request to Assembly]
As the mass shelter inside Sullivan Arena has wound down in recent weeks ahead of its full closure at month’s end, unsanctioned, informal clusters of outdoor encampments have proliferated in parts of Anchorage. Campers, nearby residents and elected officials all note that there is simply nowhere else for many people to go: Remaining shelters are at capacity and supportive housing and substance abuse treatment facilities are scarce.
“The Municipality does not currently fund or maintain a permanent, general-population emergency shelter following the closure of the Sullivan Area on May 1, 2023,” the resolution states.
Camping on public lands is prohibited in the municipality, but the city is in a tricky legal gray zone: A federal court decision bars cities from kicking campers off public property if there is no alternate shelter, as is currently the case in Anchorage. The draft measure from the task force doesn’t propose compelling people who might be camping along trails or in empty lots to leave — nor can it, legally.
“This will not affect that ruling at all … as far as we know the city can’t abate,” said Storm. “But this is to provide people a place where there will be public toilets, where they will not be disturbed or harassed.”
The resolution asks the Assembly for support in amending municipal rules to allow for sanctioned camps at five sites, all of them owned by the city. The camps are in different areas of town. None would support more than 75 individuals. And they would have small distinctions in terms of the populations they serve: One would potentially cater to the needs of those with disabilities, another would be run as a sober location for people in recovery from drugs or alcohol.
There’s a request that the city buy up to 90 Pallet Shelters, prefabricated tiny homes manufactured by the Washington-based Pallet company (in spite of the name, the structures are not made of wooden pallets). Those structures would be phased in at one of the sanctioned campsites over time. Similarly, the resolution asks the mayor’s office to work with the school district on securing nine portable buildings to be used primarily as offices for service providers working on-site.
The task force’s measure does not outline who will be in charge of each sanctioned camp, but instead asks the city to request bids from potential providers who will potentially operate them.
[Anchorage changed how it counts its homeless population during the pandemic. The number doubled.]
“No more than two sanctioned camp locations should be managed by a single provider,” the resolution states.
“We did not take on operations,” Storm said of the task force’s work. “I believe, at this point in time, that it will be a mix. The municipality will come up with funding to provide some of it, and then private operators will provide some of it.”
The five proposed locations for camp sites are:
• In the Centennial Campground in East Anchorage, where homeless people were directed to camp by Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration last year after the Sullivan shut down.
• The land around the Clitheroe Center, a substance abuse treatment center run by the Salvation Army in the far western part of the city, past the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
• The vacant lot at 40th Avenue and Denali Street in Midtown, site of what was once a proposed National Archives building that never came to be.
• Vacant land north of downtown Anchorage between Reeve Boulevard and Commercial Drive, formerly known as Viking Drive.
•The 1805 Academy Drive building by Abbott Road in South Anchorage, which, according to the resolution, would be run as a sanctioned camp that includes opening up 10 of the building’s rooms for habitation year-round.
The task force is also asking for several private landowners to consider partnering with the municipality to allow unused lots to be used for additional sanctioned camp sites.
It is unclear if the measure will pass the Assembly. Seven of the Assembly’s 12 members are newly elected. And though longer-serving members supported the formation of the task force and participated in aspects of its work, it is a substantial policy change likely to receive considerable opposition from neighborhood groups, businesses and residents in the vicinity of proposed camp sites.
Bronson, meanwhile, said it is not feasible to stand up such sites and marshal the resources required to run them responsibly, in so little time.
“While the idea of sanctioned camps may seem appealing because of the current overrun of our parks and trails, the truth is that it is simply too late to implement such a comprehensive solution this summer,” Bronson said in an emailed statement. “Instead, we must focus our efforts on establishing emergency cold weather shelter to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals by winter snowfall.”
He added that several elected leaders criticized the administration over creating a “humanitarian crisis” when it opened Centennial to homeless campers last year. That policy showed that a sanctioned camp needs significantly more than just a location.
“Establishing a sanctioned camp requires the Municipality to provide a footprint, the necessary infrastructure, sanitation facilities, security, and necessary social services,” Bronson said. “These efforts require significant funding, time, manpower and staff, making it impractical to expect these camps to be operational within a short timeframe.”
At the start of Tuesday night’s Assembly meeting, Bronson reiterated his support for the stalled shelter project at a site near Tudor and Elmore roads in East Anchorage. The mayor and two Assembly members have proposed spending $7 million to complete the project.
Though the task force did not initially plan on issuing recommendations until July, Storm said the group felt the situation was too urgent to delay action, and in the interest of quickening action on the issue put together its resolution knowing it would need further fine-tuning and refinement.