Anchorage Assembly approves using former Solid Waste Services building for winter shelter

Anchorage will move forward with its plan to use a recently vacated administrative building, located at the former Solid Waste Services transfer station in Midtown, as an emergency winter homeless shelter.

The Assembly in a unanimous vote on Thursday approved a lease agreement setting out terms for the Anchorage Health Department to temporarily use the Solid Waste Services building from Oct. 16 through April.

Officials have been pushing against a tight timeline — the vote came the same day Anchorage saw its first snowfall of the season. City code requires that the municipality activate an emergency sheltering plan when temperatures drop below 45 degrees, a threshold that temperatures have dipped below for weeks. The city has planned to open shelters on Monday, leaving about three days to get them ready and running.

The agreement approved Thursday is different from a typical lease, as it’s between two city departments for a municipally owned building. City lawyers said the agreement protects Solid Waste Services ratepayers from footing the bill.

In an 8-1 vote, Assembly members also approved a $2.138 million contract with nonprofit Henning Inc. for operating the up to 150-bed congregate shelter this winter. (Members Kevin Cross and Randy Sulte were not present. Vice Chair Meg Zaletel, who is also the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, recused herself from the vote.)

Over the last winter season, Henning operated the city’s large shelter in Sullivan Arena and provided services at its shelter in the Alex Hotel.

Henning, a relatively new local homeless services provider, will again run a shelter in the Alex Hotel and Suites this year. Earlier this week, the Assembly voted to move forward with contracts for sheltering up to 374 homeless residents in the Alex Hotel, in Spenard, and the Aviator Hotel downtown.


[A tense afternoon of vehicle towing and a microcosm of frustration over homelessness in Anchorage]

Members also unanimously voted to approve two contracts for three meals daily in the three city shelters.

The city’s homeless coordinator, Alexis Johnson, told Assembly members that this year, the city is prioritizing moving people into the hotel room shelters over the shelter at the old transfer site, which is planned as a congregate facility, meaning people staying there will share the same space.

The city will use the Solid Waste Services building as a “navigation center, to essentially move people to non-congregate facilities and then hopefully move from non-congregate into housing,” Johnson said. “... We’re trying to create a pipeline.”

It’s not clear exactly how many people will need shelter this winter. At least several hundred people have been living outside since spring, when the city closed Sullivan Arena and its previous non-congregate shelters.

According to a memo from the Health Department, officials estimate between 500 and 600 people need shelter this season.

Johnson on Thursday told Assembly members that she believes the city will see fewer than 150 people staying in the Solid Waste Services building.

Some Assembly members are skeptical that the number of beds will be enough to meet demand.

“Past performance tells me the need often exceeds capacity,” Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said.

Last December, hundreds more homeless residents than the city had planned for flocked to Sullivan Arena, seeking shelter in a separate warming area inside the arena. The city then upped the number of shelter beds there from 200 to 360.

Henning was the only operator to put in a bid on running the shelter at the Solid Waste Services building, officials said.

[Anchorage Assembly members propose new regulations for Airbnbs and other short-term rentals]

Saying they heard serious concerns about the Henning-run facilities last year, the city is also seeking third-party oversight of all its shelter operations, city officials said Thursday.

Assembly member Daniel Volland said he thinks some problems were, in part, due to the large scale of the operations and the newness of the provider.

Late last winter, the Assembly brought on Restorative Reentry Services to help with oversight at the shelters.

Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the Housing and Homelessness Committee, said this season’s emergency shelter plan has three key differences: The plan relies on non-congregate shelter in hotel rooms over mass shelter, he said. The city will, for the first time, implement a housing-first approach to winter shelter, he said. And, from the get-go, the city will have a third party helping to ensure “dignity is maintained and that the provider is meeting the goals.”

The plan is to bring on more than 500 shelter beds this winter — but the work isn’t over yet, Rivera said.

“We also need to make sure that implementation goes smoothly so that people experiencing homelessness can access these beds with as little stress as possible. And then we need to get to work figuring out the transition out of emergency cold weather shelter,” Rivera said.

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