As efforts began this week to shelter Anchorage homeless residents for the winter, there are signs the city is severely short of beds.
On Monday, the city opened 374 emergency winter shelter beds in two hotels, and the Anchorage Health Department began moving homeless residents from encampments around town into double-occupancy rooms.
But by Wednesday morning, a total of 763 people had already put their names onto the city’s registration list for shelter via a phone hotline — “and people are still calling,” said Homeless Coordinator Alexis Johnson.
“This is alarming,” Johnson said Wednesday morning.
City winter shelter plans this year have spots for a little more than 520 people. That leaves about 240 people of those on the city’s list without shelter so far.
Over the summer, as encampments proliferated across the city and private shelter beds were full, city officials planned to need to shelter 400 to 450 people this winter season, Johnson said.
“We’re going to get to double that, if I had to guess, because we can’t assume that every person who’s living unsheltered is on this list,” Johnson said.
Last week, Anchorage contracted for about 187 hotel rooms: 50 in the Spenard-area Alex Hotel and 137 rooms in the Aviator Hotel downtown. City officials are also planning to open a 150-bed congregate shelter in a former Solid Waste Services administrative building.
The Solid Waste Services building isn’t yet open as a shelter, delayed by fire safety repairs. It could be ready to open as “early as next week or as late as Nov. 1,” Johnson said.
Low temperatures over the coming nights are forecast to drop into the 20s.
The Alex Hotel was expected to be full by the end of Wednesday, and 103 people were reported to be in the Aviator so far. The 171 beds left at the Aviator were still being filled, Johnson told Assembly members during a meeting on Wednesday. Separate emergency sheltering for families opened earlier this month, run through nonprofit Christian Health Associates.
The original estimate for winter shelter need was based on the number of people who left last season’s shelters in the spring — and accounted for hundreds of units of housing coming online via converted hotels, so the need for shelter would likely drop by about that much, officials said earlier this summer.
And Health Department outreach staff surveying camps found many people who said they would find somewhere to stay on their own or would continue camping, Johnson said.
Street outreach workers with the Health Department and other service providers have passed out flyers with the hotline number to people at the city’s largest encampments — the camp at Third Avenue and Ingra Street between downtown and Fairview; in Davis Park and the adjacent snow dump site in Mountain View; at Cuddy Park in Midtown; and in encampments in Northeast Anchorage.
City workers on Monday started transporting people, along with two totes of belongings each, to the hotels using small People Mover buses. Local nonprofit Henning Inc. is operating the shelter in the Alex Hotel, and is also subcontracted to help run the Aviator Hotel shelter.
Henning staff and city workers tasked with getting people into the shelters have been triaging some complications. A lot of people on the list don’t have their own phones, and staff can’t reach them when it’s their turn to move, said Rob Seay, deputy director with Henning.
“We just had to just have to get creative because we don’t have a real good response for that,” Seay said.
On Tuesday morning, Seay went to Davis Park, looking for a few campers who had used his cellphone to get on the list for shelter. He knew they would be unable to get a call for a ride to shelter.
“...We don’t have enough space right now. Not nearly.”Rob Seay, deputy director, Henning Inc.
Others on the list who have been reached and scheduled to move haven’t shown up when it’s time, Seay said. Others, he said, were ready to get on the bus, but weren’t on the list or weren’t yet scheduled to go,
Several people have walked into the hotels seeking shelter without calling the hotline to pre-register, said Ana Vanilau, Henning program manager at the Alex Hotel.
When that happens, “I do everything I can to get them in. I don’t want to turn anyone away,” said Wesley Schmidt, the Henning staff member at the Alex Hotel who is charged with coordinating intakes into the shelter with the registration list.
But Seay said of the city’s overall winter shelter capacity, “we don’t have enough space right now. Not nearly.”
Shelter staff are also navigating rooming people together. Some homeless residents have a friend, partner or family member to room with, but many don’t.
Meanwhile, winter is fast approaching. At the Third Avenue encampment on Tuesday afternoon, service providers and city workers encouraged people to get on the list for shelter or to find a place indoors to stay with friends or family.
Several dozen tents and tarps were still scattered in clusters around the large lot, between stretches of mud and along the tree line and the fence surrounding the encampment.
Ron Bryan helped his partner, Pamela Hulse, out of one of the tents near the center of the camp. Bryan pushed Hulse in her wheelchair toward a blue car, then gently scooped Hulse out of her chair and set her into the vehicle’s backseat.
Cathleen McLaughlin, CEO of local provider Restorative Reentry Services, was volunteering to help homeless campers. McLaughlin was driving Hulse to the hospital, where Hulse could get medical care. Bryan was on the list for the Aviator and was scheduled to move there on Wednesday, he said.
Most people on the list for shelter were coming out of the Third Avenue encampment and Cuddy Park, Johnson told the Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee on Wednesday. About 30 to 40 people on the list are staying in private shelters, such as Brother Francis Shelter or Gospel Rescue Mission, but want to move into a hotel room in the city’s shelters, she said. Four people who have rental leases for rooms in two hotels recently converted into housing have also asked to go into an emergency shelter, she said.
Uncertainty over additional beds
It’s not clear whether city officials will take steps to open more shelter space once all shelter beds at the Alex, Aviator and Solid Waste Services building are full. It’s also not clear where in the city more shelter would go.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Assembly member and committee chair Felix Rivera cautioned officials against making “any official pronouncements that we need to double the number of shelter beds” until the city knows for certain.
“I think we need to wait until we have all of our shelter beds online,” Rivera said, adding that more housing units are becoming available soon.
A project to convert the former Barratt Inn in Spenard into 96 low-income housing units is opening in the near future.
“I think as we go through the process and the next couple of weeks, I think we’ll get a better sense of how many more, if any, additional shelter beds we will need,” Rivera said.
Johnson pushed back on that, saying “it would be naïve of us to think that every person who is living unsheltered is on this list.”
At the Third Avenue encampment, the Health Department has estimated about 89 tents are left, she said. “We believe at least a third of them are abandoned with people who, moving into shelter, could not take all items into shelter with them,” she said.
Many more are still living in other camps in Mountain View, Northeast Anchorage and Midtown, she said.
Johnson said that the former Solid Waste Services building, once open as a shelter, should stay at 150 beds. “We’ve communicated to the public that that’s the number that we’d like to stay out. I think it’s a great opportunity to pilot a small shelter,” Johnson said.
And funding is an issue — even if the city does identify additional locations for shelter, she said.
“Yes, there are 763 people seeking shelter, but I do not believe we’re in a position to fund every single one of those beds,” she said.
Meanwhile, the city has been planning to completely clear the Third Avenue encampment this month. The city posted abatement notices there on Monday, telling campers that the city would begin tearing down the camp 10 days later, on Oct. 26, Parks and Recreation Director Mike Braniff told the committee.
A 9th Circuit Court ruling holds that cities can’t tear down homeless camps and force people to move if there is no alternative shelter available for them.
But with the 171 beds at the Aviator Hotel and the few left at the Alex Hotel, the city should be able to continue with its work to clear the camp, Johnson said.
The city has posted notice at Chanshtnu Muldoon Park and at two small camps in rights-of-way, and plans to post notices on Friday at Valley Street Park and Jacobson Park. But the city may not be able to post abatement notices at the large camps in Midtown, Braniff said.
“I think this is when we really do start to get into the reality that shelter space may or may not exist,” he said.
In Mountain View, the city will ask the people in about 80 tents at a snow dump site to move across the street to Davis Park, where the will be “welcome to camp for this winter.” Maintenance and Operations needs to use the snow dumping site this winter, he said.