The Anchorage Assembly has asked Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration to set up a sanctioned camping area for the city’s homeless residents this summer, rejecting on Tuesday night a more expansive proposal that called for five sanctioned camping areas.
The measure, passed in a 9-2 vote, asks Bronson officials to select an operator and set up an “allowed camp” for 30 to 60 people on vacant land at 40th Avenue and Denali Street — the old National Archives site — near Cuddy Park in Midtown.
Tuesday’s vote does not necessarily mean a sanctioned camp will be created. It’s up to the Bronson administration to implement the plan.
At the meeting, the mayor expressed concerns about whether the city could find the funding to carry it out, though he said he supported the plan.
The move comes as hundreds of unsheltered residents are camping in parks, along trails and along streets. About 700 people are living unsheltered in the city, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates.
Pressure on the city to take action has mounted in the wake of its May 31 closure of the mass homeless shelter in Sullivan Arena. Hundreds of people have left the arena with nowhere to go. Many had no choice but to camp.
The measure passed Tuesday requests that the city open the camp on July 17 and close it Sept. 1, 2024. The resolution says it should provide an array of basic services, including potable water, sanitation, electricity, security, fencing and clinical and support services.
The camp would operate like a low-barrier shelter and offer spaces for tent camping and for people to sleep in vehicles, the measure says. The camp would later integrate 30 prefabricated tiny homes for people to stay in, such as shelters from Washington state-based company Pallet or comparative structures from a different vendor.
Pallet shelters have two beds each and would cost the city around $380,000 as a long-term investment, said Assembly member Felix Rivera, who sponsored the pared-down version of the sanctioned camping proposal.
Anchorage currently has no low-barrier, walk-in shelter. Waitlists are long for a bed in private shelters, transitional and supportive housing programs and housing vouchers.
Ahead of the Sullivan Arena closure, the Assembly called for a community task force to rapidly look into setting up sanctioned camps. The task force last month recommended setting up five camps by June 19, scattered across Anchorage, and purchasing 90 Pallet shelters.
But after Assembly members and Bronson’s homeless coordinator raised concerns about the short timeframe and limited resources, Rivera drafted a more “politically realistic proposal,” he said Tuesday night.
“What we have before us is just simply baby steps that will allow us to stand something up that is realistic, feasible and timely,” Rivera said.
“We just need the political will to take two small steps forward, trust each other and hold each other accountable as we implement this pilot program,” he said.
But a few other Assembly members expressed doubt, including Assembly Chair Christopher Constant, who voted against the resolution along with member Scott Myers.
“I believe that a sanctioned camp is waving a white flag of failure. We should be working on our permanent shelter. We should be working on housing $10 to every $1 we invest in shelter,” Constant said.
The measure’s passage marks a broadening in the city’s approach to homelessness. For the first time, the Assembly has signed off on establishing a legal camp as a formal part of its homelessness response. It’s an idea that has been discussed for years among advocates and homeless service providers, and one the Bronson administration suggested earlier this year as a stopgap measure for the summer.
At the time, several Assembly members vehemently rejected the idea. They slammed the administration for its decision last June to abruptly close Sullivan Arena and direct homeless people to Centennial Park Campground in East Anchorage. The campground saw numerous safety issues, including bears raiding camps, a lack of services, theft, violence, overdoses and deaths, and a shootout between police and a man they said they were trying to detain.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Bronson expressed frustration with the Assembly’s earlier rejection of sanctioned camping and said setting up Centennial last summer was a “Herculean task for two departments.”
Bronson said he still supports sanctioned camps in Anchorage.
“The problem comes down to money. There’s no money left to do a lot of this. I support this, but we’ve got to look at the money now,” Bronson said of the measure.
The resolution doesn’t require the administration to take action, Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia pointed out, expressing doubts that the administration will move forward with it.
“We’re voting for a communication to the administration to consider sanctioned camps. That’s what we’re doing. We are not creating anything, we’re not establishing anything and we’re not funding anything. We’re simply communicating to the administration, ‘This is something we would like you to seriously consider putting in place.’ And it’s their choice as to whether they do it or not,” he said.
If the city does open a sanctioned camp at the site, the city would consider it a shelter.
Without shelter space for the hundreds of people now staying outdoors, the city is largely restricted from clearing homeless camps. A 2018 federal court ruling known as Martin v. Boise prohibits local governments from forcing homeless residents to move from public property when there’s no available alternative like a low-barrier indoor shelter.
On Tuesday, the city began clearing a large homeless encampment at Cuddy Park and surrounding areas — including the empty lot picked for a sanctioned camp by the Assembly on Tuesday night.
A music festival is scheduled to take place in Cuddy Park this month, and the city says it has an obligation to honor the permit and that having thousands of festival attendees in an area with dozens of homeless campers presents a public safety risk.
The ACLU of Alaska on Monday filed a legal challenge to try to stop the abatement.
The Assembly’s measure specifies that the city classifies allowed camps as shelters. Open spaces in the camp would be taken into consideration in future city decisions on whether to clear unsanctioned camps.
Assembly member Anna Brawley said she is concerned that the camp would be used by the city as a “pretext to justify further abatements.” Forcing people to move destabilizes them further, she said.
City leaders say they are working to quickly develop plans and open a permanent shelter before winter.
Members on Tuesday also postponed a vote on whether to revive a stalled East Anchorage shelter project.
During his opening comments Tuesday evening, Bronson urged the Assembly to move ahead with his $7 million request to finish construction of the 150-bed facility near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads.
“I implore each of the Assembly members here tonight to reflect on how we want to Anchorage to look a year from now. Do we want to be in the exact same situation next June? Or do we want to be part of the team that did something historic for our city?” he said.
Brawley instead put forward an $11.1 million version of Bronson’s proposal on Tuesday night. Members unanimously postponed Brawley’s version for consideration at a meeting on June 20.
Work on the Tudor-Elmore project stopped last fall after the administration was found to have 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.
Assembly members have questioned the project’s ballooning costs and a lack of clear plans from the administration for its operations and funding since Bronson proposed a much larger 1,000-bed version of the project shortly after taking office.
Brawley said her version offers more information and context, so officials and the public can better evaluate the project from a financial feasibility perspective rather than a political frame.
“Is this a sound investment of public funds? Is this project feasible in the timeframe and with the budget proposed? How and how soon can it be operated and paid for longer term? Because what we’re talking about is not simply construction of a facility,” Brawley said. “... What we’re talking about is, for the first time in this city’s history, operating a city-run shelter on a permanent basis.”