Bronson proposes giving plane tickets to Anchorage’s homeless this winter to prevent deaths from exposure

With colder months approaching, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson said Monday that the city likely will not be using Sullivan Arena as a large-scale homeless shelter this winter. And to prevent people from freezing to death on the street, his administration wants to purchase plane tickets for people who want to travel to communities within Alaska or warmer climates out of state.

“I am not going to be responsible for people freezing to death on the street. I’m doing everything I can, literally, I’m doing everything I can to keep that from happening,” Bronson said during a rare extended interview covering a wide range of topics at his office in City Hall.

“We set a record this last year on how many people died unsheltered in the city. If something doesn’t happen, we’re going to beat that record this next winter. And so, with that moral impetus for me, we’re going to start giving airline tickets for people to go where they want to go,” Bronson said. “If they want to go to a warmer climate, it’s far cheaper to give them $600 to get an airline ticket to anywhere, from San Diego, all the way to Seattle, or to Fairbanks where they’ve got family that can take them, or back to the Bush. I have no choice now.”

Bronson said that in the absence of a dedicated winter shelter, hundreds of unhoused people could be exposed to subzero temperatures this winter. And, he said, “Sullivan Arena is, my understanding is, won’t be used for a homeless shelter again.”

Bronson didn’t say how the city would fund a relocation program. It’s also not yet clear what shelter or shelters could replace the Sullivan, which, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has functioned off and on as a mass-care facility, at times sheltering more than 500 people. The Anchorage Assembly and Bronson’s administration agree that one or more shelters need to be created, and officials are working to formulate a plan.

The Salvation Army last summer bought plane tickets for some people who were living in Centennial Park Campground, where the Bronson administration moved homeless residents when it closed Sullivan Arena.

[One woman’s long road from homeless to housed in Anchorage]


Bronson’s homeless coordinator, Alexis Johnson, said by email that the city would like to fund and expand existing relocation programs, which reunite people with their families in Alaska and in the Lower 48.

“The only stipulation for the current program was that they had to have someone on the other end to receive them and offer to house them. Whether that be family or friends. An expansion of this program is being developed that would allow for clients to choose their destination,” she said.

The city would like to provide funding for additional nonprofits to stand up travel programs, Johnson said, estimating that $600 to $1,000 flights cost about the same as a six- to 10-day stay in a homeless shelter.

Cities in the Lower 48 have employed similar strategies, giving unhoused people free plane and bus tickets to go home to family, friends or other cities where they may have a support network.

For some, relocation programs have helped put them on a path out of homelessness. But such programs also have been highly criticized as a quick and cheap way to reduce homeless populations, without ensuring that the recipients of tickets won’t just end up on the streets elsewhere.

Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said there hasn’t been any formal conversation between the Assembly and the administration about funding a relocation program. That approach may be helpful to a few, but not for the majority of Anchorage’s homeless residents, who are Alaskans, born either in Anchorage or other parts of the state, Constant said.

“A good portion of our individuals experiencing homelessness are Alaska’s first people. This is their place. There is no other place,” he said.

The Bronson administration and Assembly have had some successes in recent years bringing more shelters and low-income housing online, including several converted hotels. But beds at walk-in, low barrier shelters are practically non-existent in Anchorage, with existing facilities regularly at capacity nearly every night.

With more than 750 people currently living unsheltered, city officials largely agree that more shelter is needed. But they’ve frequently disagreed over specifics like size and location.

The majority of Assembly members, the previous administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and several social service providers and nonprofit entities have emphasized a “housing first” approach to homelessness for several years. That model aims to move people into housing units before beginning to address underlying problems like mental health, substance abuse, employment and case management.

Bronson, who said he has spent large amounts of time at homeless camps around town this summer and last, said in the interview Monday that he believes getting people off the streets and into a shelter facility should be the priority.

“Is a large shelter that’s intensively managed like Reno (Nevada), or some of the other cities that do this, is that worse than what we have right now? And I’m just telling you, I’m at Third and Ingra a lot. There’s Davis Park, which some would argue is even worse,” Bronson said, referring to the two largest unsanctioned encampments in the municipality this summer. “I’m telling you: Make a decision on what’s worse. I’ve made the decision. I say a large shelter is far less worse than what we have right now.”

[City brings basic services to growing downtown Anchorage homeless camp as more people expected to arrive]

Since coming into office, Bronson has advocated for the city to build a large homeless shelter and navigation facility in East Anchorage near Tudor and Elmore roads, just behind the former police department headquarters. That project has been scaled back repeatedly, down to 150 beds, and sat dormant for months after a bungled contracting process came to light last fall. Since then, the Assembly has kept the project on life support and is scheduled to vote on a proposal for it in August.

Bronson on Monday also emphasized what many leaders in the municipality have stressed for years: Anchorage shoulders a disproportionate share of the state’s problems with homelessness, in addition to issues with substance abuse, an affordable housing crisis and a dearth of mental health services.

“We have 40% of the population of the state, and we have 65% of the homeless population in the state. Our taxpayers here can’t keep footing that entire bill. This is a statewide problem ... If that’s the way it’s going to be, this needs a statewide solution, especially in the funding space,” Bronson said.

During the previous legislative session, city leaders requested $20 million in state dollars to purchase and operate a shelter, Bronson said. Though that money did not come through, he said the municipality plans to ask again next year.


Additionally, the mayor said he wants to see the state make more beds and services available at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported there is no low-barrier, walk-in shelter in Anchorage. Brother Francis Shelter is currently operating as a low-barrier facility.

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at