Anchorage officials are pushing ahead with plans for emergency winter homeless shelter, which includes rooming people in at least two hotels and opening a congregate shelter, likely in the recently vacated Solid Waste Services administrative building in Midtown.
Since the city shuttered its emergency homeless shelters this spring — closing the former Sullivan Arena mass shelter for good — at least several hundred people have been living unsheltered outdoors. Many have been sleeping in vehicles, tents and under tarps in four large encampments and in dozens of smaller camps dotting the city’s green spaces and public lands. In recent weeks, they’ve endured chilly temperatures and frequent rainfall.
Several days this month, low temperatures dropped below the 45-degree threshold that triggers a requirement in municipal code to open emergency shelters for homeless residents. Privately-owned homeless shelters are largely full. City officials are hurrying to open emergency shelters by mid-October.
“Obviously, it’s getting really cold at night in the mornings. Some places have gotten their first frost this week,” Assembly member Felix Rivera said during a Wednesday meeting of the Housing and Homelessness Committee. “... So it’s important to make sure that we are on track, if not ahead of schedule, to get our winter shelter set up.”
Alexis Johnson, homeless coordinator in the Anchorage Health Department, presented the city’s winter shelter plans to the committee on Wednesday. An initial survey of potential hotels found two locations, with 272 beds at one location and 100 beds at another — about half as many rooms total, as homeless residents would be doubled up in rooms, she said.
Anchorage city officials have not yet said which hotels have offered up rooms for homeless people to stay in, as bidding for contracts remains open for another week. In past years, the city has put people up in rooms at the Alex Hotel in Spenard and at the Aviator Hotel downtown.
Health Department officials said they have budgeted for a cost of $100 per person, per day, including costs for damages to rooms, basing the figure on damage costs the city incurred over the last winter sheltering season.
The Solid Waste Services building could shelter up to an additional 150 people, for a total of about 522 shelter beds between all three locations, Johnson said.
The Anchorage Assembly last week set aside about $4.1 million in funding for cold weather shelter, and is set to vote next week on another $957,000, plus a possible addition of about $300,000.
That money is expected to pay for winter shelter through December, with some possibly left over for 2024, Rivera said. But the city will largely deal with funding shelter for January through April during the upcoming city budget process in November, he said.
It’s not clear exactly how many people are currently living unsheltered in Anchorage. City officials have been planning to open shelter this winter for about 450 people.
Several projects to convert hotels into low-income housing have been recently completed or will open as housing soon. City officials say that because those projects are adding around 300 units of housing, that helps account for the about 750 homeless people who dispersed from city emergency shelters this spring with nowhere to go.
Plans clear encampment at Third and Ingra
The Anchorage Health Department outreach team is working with local social service providers to figure out which campers plan to seek shelter this winter, Johnson said. The efforts will be focused on four large encampments: the Cuddy Park area in Midtown, Chanshtnu-Muldoon Park in Northeast Anchorage, Davis Park in Mountain View and at the Third Avenue encampment, which straddles the downtown and Fairview neighborhoods.
The department plans to work with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness and other outreach workers to conduct surveys at camps, to “find the facility that we, with the client, believe would fit best for their needs,” she said.
The Health Department’s priority is the large homeless encampment at Third Avenue and Ingra Street, Johnson said.
The city plans to take down the encampment soon after it opens emergency shelters. If all goes according to plan, it will post closure notices at the site on Oct. 15, when the city’s non-congregate hotel shelters open, and begin clearing the camp on Oct. 26, Johnson told the committee during Wednesday’s meeting.
A federal appeals court ruling, Martin v. Boise, holds that local governments cannot clear homeless camps unless there is available alternative shelter for homeless residents. The city faced a lawsuit this summer from the ACLU of Alaska that halted its plans to tear down the long-established Davis Park camp.
Johnson told the committee that the city will follow the Martin v. Boise ruling and post abatement notices once shelter space is open.
“It’s our goal to get Third and Ingra posted and closed and to move all clients out of that encampment into housing and into shelter,” Johnson said.
Homeless residents in the camp, nearby business owners and service providers have said that gun violence, assaults, extortion, theft and drug dealing have proliferated throughout the summer, largely unfettered, in the Third Avenue encampment and surrounding streets. Earlier this month, the Assembly directed $220,000 to address public health and safety issues at the Third Avenue encampment and other large sites around Anchorage.
Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle on Wednesday told the committee that the department has set up a detail of one sergeant and four officers that are focusing policing efforts on the encampments. Another overtime detail of three to four patrol officers is also helping with increased patrols of encampments, he said.
“Our main goal is a lot of community policing. We’re establishing rapport with the citizens in the various camps. We’re trying to gain a baseline understanding of what the needs of the people in the camps are from, not only the police department, but from other agencies here in the in the city,” Kerle said.
The most important work is ”identifying the citizens who are causing the problems in the camp, along with where they reside, and what we can do to get them out of there there, and what steps we can take” to prevent vulnerable campers from being victimized for a second time, Kerle said.
Former SWS building draws interest, concern
Johnson on Wednesday also spoke of emerging plans for converting the former Solid Waste Services administrative building into a winter shelter, at the old Central Transfer Station site in a highly industrial area of Midtown. Last week the Assembly unanimously approved a resolution that asked Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration to look into the possible use of the building as a congregate shelter, warming area or navigation center.
The city would add fencing that would separate the office building and parking lots from the old transfer station, Johnson said. It has three working showers, operational bathrooms and locker rooms, and two small kitchen areas that would allow for heating up personal food, she said. Office rooms there would be used for local service providers to meet with clients and to provide navigation to programs for housing and other services. There’s a secure front entrance, large fenced outdoor space and room for pets, and big indoor spaces for food service, a day engagement center and a TV room, Johnson said.
It’s also located far from residential neighborhoods, schools, and is relatively close to a bus stop at 56th Avenue and Old Seward, she said.
Assembly members on Wednesday expressed some concern over possible health and safety issues at the site.
“There is hazardous chemical storage in the immediate vicinity,” Assembly member Kevin Cross said.
The reason the city zones areas for industrial use is to protect the public, he said.
“It’s great that we put in a fence, but I’m kind of curious about the long-term safeguards,” Cross said. “We’re increasing foot traffic in the area. There’s heavy equipment. It’s going to be during the winter when it’s cold, when visibility is minimal. And so how do we make sure those safeguards are there?”
There is not yet a formal proposal to use the building, though Johnson said that the department is in negotiations for a lease of the facility with SWS. During the Assembly’s first meeting in October, the administration plans to put forward any items that need Assembly approval, such as a contract for a service provider to run the shelter, Johnson said.
Ahead of that October meeting, another meeting of the Assembly and administration to discuss the project is scheduled for Sept. 29.
“My expectation is that we are presented with the full plan and any questions answered at that Sept. 29 meeting,” Rivera said.