With hundreds of homeless residents camping in parks and sleeping on the streets, the Anchorage Assembly is set to consider a proposal Tuesday to set up sanctioned camping areas for those living unsheltered. It’s also scheduled to deliberate a $7 million proposal from Mayor Dave Bronson and two Assembly members that would revive a stalled East Anchorage homeless shelter project.
In a push to find stopgap measures to alleviate the impacts of unsheltered homelessness this summer, the Assembly earlier this year called for a community task force to rapidly look into setting up sanctioned camps, which would offer security and basic services like potable water, bathrooms, food and electricity to homeless people.
The city’s mass emergency winter homeless shelter in Sullivan Arena wound down last month to its full closure on May 31. Hundreds of people left the arena with nowhere to go. Anchorage has no low-barrier, walk-in shelter. Waitlists are long for a bed in private shelters, transitional and supportive housing programs and housing vouchers.
The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates 700 people are living unsheltered. Large encampments at Midtown’s Cuddy Park, in Mountain View’s Davis Park, and between downtown and Fairview have swelled in size.
The Sanctioned Camp Community Task Force recently proposed a measure that recommends setting up five sanctioned camps by June 19. Each would have a capacity of 40 or 75 people and be located in different areas of the city: East Anchorage in Centennial Park Campground, where Bronson’s administration directed people to camp last summer after closing Sullivan Arena; in West Anchorage near the Salvation Army’s substance abuse treatment center; in Midtown on a vacant lot near Cuddy Park; another area of vacant land north of downtown between Reeve Boulevard and Commercial Drive; and in South Anchorage at the 1805 Academy Drive building off Abbott Road.
The task force is also asking the city to buy up to 90 Pallet Shelters, which are prefabricated tiny homes manufactured by Washington-based company Pallet.
But after pushback on the measure from several Assembly members and Bronson’s homeless coordinator, Alexis Johnson, during a work session last week, Assembly member Felix Rivera will propose a scaled-back version of the plan on Tuesday night, he said.
“We do not have the financial backing. And as great as these ideas are, and the hours that this task force has spent — which I believe we could possibly roll into next summer — I personally do not believe that we will be able to stand up five Cadillac-plan sanctioned camps with the resources that we have, with no financial plan by the date that’s being asked of us,” Johnson said.
Rivera, who chairs the Housing and Homelessness committee, said it will be a “much more narrowed version” that will help address their concerns about high costs and a realistic timeframe.
He shared few details, as the new draft is not yet complete, but said it will include Pallet shelters.
“Whether that particular proposal gets enough votes or not, whether the narrowed-down proposal will get the support of the mayor — I can’t tell you right now,” he said.
If the Assembly approves the task force’s proposal or Rivera’s narrowed version on Tuesday, it would mark a big shift in the city’s approach to homelessness, as the city for the first time would be establishing one or more legal camps as a formal part of its homelessness response.
City leaders are also pushing to quickly develop plans for a permanent, low-barrier, walk-in shelter.
Last month, Bronson renewed his push to finish the construction of a sprung-tent structure for a homeless shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage, near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads. A week before the $7 million proposal was introduced, Johnson had warned officials that without drastic action, the Sullivan Arena would likely need to be reopened to the homeless next winter. (The city is required to open emergency winter shelter each year when temperatures drop below 45 degrees.)
Work on the Tudor-Elmore project stopped last fall, after the administration violated city rules on procurement and contracting, authorizing the contractor to proceed with millions of dollars in construction work without the required approval from the Assembly. The contractor is now suing the city for payment.
The shelter proposal will also be up for a vote on Tuesday, though it is possible that the Assembly may vote to postpone its consideration of the proposal to August, Rivera said.
That’s because the Assembly, earlier this year, adopted its Clean Slate Strategy as the city pursues opening a new permanent year-round low-barrier shelter by Nov. 1, he said.
Several proposals for homeless services and shelters have failed over the last few years after facing community opposition. The strategy is, essentially, going back to the drawing board, calling for input from residents and community councils, in order build better consensus on a location and plan. All locations, including the Tudor and Elmore sites, will be considered during the next phase of the strategy in July, Rivera said.