The Municipality of Anchorage is close to opening a supportive housing facility inside of a city-owned property that’s been at the heart of contentious debates over housing and homelessness for three years.
During its Tuesday night meeting, the Anchorage Assembly is set to consider several proposals related to the Golden Lion, a former hotel in Midtown that could house around 80 otherwise-homeless residents in a matter of weeks.
The city has signed an occupancy agreement with Henning Inc., a local nonprofit that previously handled operations at the shelter inside Sullivan Arena and two converted hotels, which will be the contractor in charge of running services at the property. According to the lease agreement submitted to the Assembly, Henning will pay $1 a year to lease the building, and be responsible for covering everything from maintenance and operations to security and utilities.
The target population, according to Henning CEO Shawn Hays, are people with mobility issues and who need assistance with daily activities like dressing, bathing, and using the bathroom.
Hays said the organization is planning to start moving people into the building on Monday, and already has pre-lease arrangements in place with 17 clients.
The Golden Lion will be housing, not a shelter, Hays emphasized. Tenants sign month-to-month leases and have to pay rent, though many, if not all, will be receiving financial assistance from programs like Social Security and Medicaid, along with federal housing vouchers. People can stay as long as they need, she said, but the idea is that on-site resources like case managers can help guide them toward more sustainable longer-term homes.
“This isn’t considered permanent housing,” Hays said. “It has more of a transitional feel.”
On top of case management, Henning plans on bringing a number of other services into the building, including a permanent clinic that can handle everything from basic wound care to behavioral health. Hays said the nonprofit, a relative newcomer in Anchorage’s social service industry, is intent on fostering a sense of community within the facility, including talking circles, drug and alcohol recovery meetings and social activities.
The services and clientele are similar to another facility that opened in the recent past, the Complex Care shelter run by Catholic Social Services, also housed inside a former hotel, the Sockeye Inn at the northern edge of Midtown. That site, however, is meant to be relatively short term, a first way to get people out of homeless camps or living in vehicles, and help them stabilize. The Golden Lion, Hays said, is another step forward in the process.
“They’re shelter, and we’re housing,” Hays said, adding that clients moved into the Golden Lion from Complex Care mean open beds for the latter that can go to new residents.
While the new facility is close to being up and running, there are outstanding pieces, including a measure the mayor submitted to the Assembly for $250,000, money that would go to Henning to help staff up the site.
“I expect some form of it to pass, but maybe not at this meeting,” said Assembly Chair Chris Constant on Monday about the measure, which arrived before the Assembly late and missing some key procedural components.
Hays said that even if approval is postponed, Henning still plans on moving clients in next week.
Constant said the municipality has made “remarkable progress” in recent months getting the vacant hotel ready for occupancy. But he said he and other Assembly members have not been given adequate information about programming, the scope of work outlined in the administration’s contract with Henning, or additional costs the public may incur, and thinks final approval for appropriations might not come until a meeting later this month after undergoing further scrutiny.
“They’re effectively setting up an assisted living home without following the process,” Constant said. “The devil’s in the details.”
The Golden Lion was at the center of a public backlash against former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration and the Assembly over a mix of issues including COVID-19 lockdown measures, and using emergency aid to buy properties and run a shelter inside the Sullivan Arena to manage homelessness. Money for the Golden Lion acquisition was part of the city’s voter-approved sale of the Municipal Light and Power utility in 2019. Then-candidate Dave Bronson ran for mayor on a platform that included halting use of the building for addiction treatment services or homelessness, and a number of Bronson’s biggest campaign donors and political allies live in the nearby neighborhood.
But as local crises with housing and homelessness have intensified during his time in office, Bronson eventually reversed course this winter and said he supported opening the Golden Lion.
In April, Bronson stood beside Assembly members he’d criticized in the past to announce at a press conference the facility’s imminent opening. There was urgency at the time, with the shelter inside the Sullivan Arena slated to wind down operations and shutter completely at the end of May.
But plans languished because a third-party contractor that the municipality had been in discussions with about running the facility ultimately backed out, causing officials to scramble to find an alternative operator, according to city Homelessness Coordinator Alexis Johnson.
The recent arrangement to bring Henning Inc. on board solves that problem.
“Henning received the keys on Friday, and so they have been in all weekend bringing the rooms up to code,” Johnson said.
There are several renovations that will continue even as people move in. For example, the Assembly is also considering a purchasing request for $479,000 to repair an exterior soffit that was severely damaged by a broken water sprinkler pipe. A communal kitchen area is also being added in order to meet federal housing voucher requirements. But, Johnson said, the priority for all involved at this point is getting people off the streets and out of camps into better conditions.
“We have people ready to get into housing immediately,” she said. “I think it’ll probably take them a week or two to be fully occupied.”