Anchorage Assembly readies to move millions of unspent funds for winter homeless needs

As the city heads into winter, the Anchorage Assembly is scrambling to come up with money for cold weather shelter and housing options. Two proposals going before members on Tuesday could redirect millions of dollars in unspent local and federal dollars to the city’s Health Department, which would go toward placing people in hotel rooms and stand up a short-term emergency shelter in the months ahead.

A different measure asks the mayor’s office to consider using the newly vacated administrative offices at Solid Waste Services’ Midtown facility, beside the old Central Transfer Station site, as a navigation center to help move people off the street.

That proposal is still in the early stages, but its sponsor, Assembly member Randy Sulte, says he is aiming to start a conversation among city leaders when alternative indoor options are in short supply. The idea of repurposing public buildings like community recreation centers and hotels in residential neighborhoods as shelters has been a frequent flashpoint in local politics for the last several years.

Of the two funding items, members will vote on the larger proposal Tuesday evening, which shifts $5,924,066 to the Anchorage Health Department to cover housing and shelter costs this winter, beginning in mid-October.

More than $2 million of that comes from unspent American Rescue Plan Act dollars provided by the federal government during the pandemic. Another $3.5 million is from money previously set aside for Mayor Dave Bronson’s proposed homeless shelter at Tudor and Elmore roads, which the Assembly decided to definitively scrap in an August vote.

“This is all money that’s available from other sources,” said West Anchorage Assembly member Anna Brawley, one of the measure’s sponsors. “The general intent is we’re funding emergency cold weather shelter, which is the responsibility of the Health Department to stand up.”

[Anchorage Assembly directs $220,000 to address public health and safety issues at large homeless encampments]


A separate resolution applies $957,000 in the municipality’s alcohol tax revenue left over from last winter to this year’s needs, specifically to toward standing up a short-term emergency shelter. That item will not be up for public testimony or a vote for at least two weeks.

Together, the proposals give a municipal department the resources to do work that was, up until 2020, handled predominantly by nonprofits and religious groups in Anchorage. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city budgeted very little money for sheltering homeless people, even during the winter, when churches and private shelters accommodated seasonal upswells in people needing a warm place to sleep. That changed when a flood of federal aid and public health emergency measures during the pandemic led officials to open the Sullivan Arena to hundreds of people and helped organize contracted care inside.

As federal support tapered off, local officials have been struggling to reestablish the municipality’s role in providing homelessness assistance while still paying for the other city services.

“We’ve never had that line in our operating budget,” Brawley said of city spending on shelter and housing operations.

“The reality is, our city budget has never adequately addressed emergency shelter, and we have little room to shift local funds without significantly impacting other public services,” Brawley said in a statement put out Monday from several Assembly members.

If the members approve the fund transfers, a sizable share will go toward putting people in converted hotel rooms, a policy that’s been going on in Anchorage for the last several years. There are a few details on what emergency shelter would look like or where it would go, though the measure specifies a prospective facility would have a maximum capacity of 150 people, far below what was accommodated at the Sullivan as recently as last winter.

The separate resolution from Sulte asks for the Bronson administration to evaluate using an office building owned by Solid Waste Services at its previous Central Transfer Station location as a navigation center for homeless people, helping them connect to services and housing resources.

Last week, the utility shifted operations to a new facility in the area, moving out of its previous maintenance garage and two-story office building, which includes a handful of lockers, two showers, and a small kitchen.

“I figured I’d bring it forward,” Sulte said of the proposal, adding that the Bronson administration has expressed an interest in looking into the idea. “We’ve got to take advantage of the facilities that we have.”

Sulte was unsure how many other Assembly members would support the idea but said it deserves to at least be evaluated. It is not up for a vote at Tuesday’s meeting, and he hopes that after introduction other members will propose amendments or other fine-tuning to the proposal.

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.