As Anchorage officials grapple with a winter shelter bed gap, Bronson resurrects dispute over mass shelter proposal

A gap between the number of emergency winter shelter beds in Anchorage and the number of people on a registration list sparked alarm in recent days from the city homeless coordinator and the service provider running the city-funded shelters.

Mayor Dave Bronson has quickly wielded the situation as a political cudgel. In social media statements, the mayor blamed the Assembly and the nonprofit that tracks the homelessness response system in Anchorage for the unfolding situation. Bronson asserted that the city needs a mass shelter, saying, “it’s clear that the 1000-bed shelter/navigation center I’ve been advocating for since I took office is necessary.”

Several Assembly members rejected that claim, and they and the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness have urged calm as the city’s winter sheltering plan is coming online. They pointed out that the city’s temporary 150-bed mass care shelter isn’t yet open and said that numerous factors are still at play — and they put the responsibility for sheltering plans back onto the mayor.

“I’m really pissed at the mayor, but I’m really grateful to the administration for doing their part,” Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said. “Because the mayor is just playing politics, but at least the (health) department is doing their best to solve the problem.”

The city’s emergency cold weather sheltering plan, led by the health department, has a total of 524 beds — at two already-operating hotels and a mass care shelter in the city’s former Solid Waste Services administrative building, which is scheduled to open Nov. 1.

By Thursday, the city’s registration list totaled 989 people.

That leaves about 350 people on the list who said they are living unsheltered and who won’t be able to get a city shelter bed right away, according to copies of the registration list provided by the Health Department.


“It’s nerve-wracking for us,” said Shawn Hays, CEO of Henning Inc., the nonprofit contracted by the city to run its shelters.

East Anchorage shelter dispute drags on

Bronson, in response to questions from the Daily News, pointed to actions by the Anchorage Assembly that stalled his early-term effort to build a large homeless shelter near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads in East Anchorage.

“We could have had a 1,000-bed facility online had the Assembly not put politics over people. I said a facility of this size was needed and was told by members of the Assembly and the Coalition to End Homelessness that the need for shelter was not that large,” Bronson said.

Multiple Assembly members say it wasn’t about politics. They rejected the project to safeguard the city’s finances and to stop the mayor from “warehousing” homeless residents, they say, arguing it would do more harm than good and waste limited city resources on a stopgap measure.

“The mayor has this dream. And in his view, the dream has been squashed. And anything he can do to revive that dream of his, he will do. And anything he can say to push for it, he will say,” said Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the Housing and Homelessness Committee.

Soon after taking office in 2021, Bronson began pushing for the city to build a 1,000-person shelter in East Anchorage using a framed tent building from Sprung Structures. The project was dogged by controversy, missteps and a ballooning budget.

The Assembly and administration negotiated over homeless plans for months and whittled the proposal down to a 150- to 200-bed shelter. The Assembly in May 2022 set aside $6.2 million for its construction. But members pulled the plug a few months later, after the Assembly learned that Bronson officials skirted city code by pushing ahead with millions in work without first getting the required contract approvals from the Assembly.

The Assembly in August again voted down a proposal from Bronson to restart construction.

At the latest vote, Bronson had suggested using $11 million from various funding streams to build it — including several million the city had already earmarked for other purposes.

However, the Bronson administration never presented a full funding plan for building it to completion or for its operations, and cost estimates frequently changed. The most recent estimates in August clocked its total price tag at $16 million to $17 million, not including an annual operations estimate of at least $6 million to $8 million. Initial estimates in 2021 started at $15 million to build plus $12 million per year to run the shelter, and later rising to $22 million for building costs.

Assembly members balked, especially with no long-term funding source for operations yet identified. They cited concerns about the safety and the temporary nature of the tensioned-fabric structure, which had not yet received necessary city engineer safety approvals for snow and wind loads. Several members and many residents who opposed the idea said a large shelter could also harm the neighborhood, citing troubling impacts to the Fairview neighborhood from the Sullivan Arena mass shelter.

“People would not want to be there. They would rather stay in whatever their current situation is than go to a 1,000-person shelter,” Rivera said.

Social service providers say smaller shelters and non-congregate shelters like hotels are better for clients and the community.

Hays, whose nonprofit Henning ran the city’s emergency shelter in Sullivan Arena last year, said she learned that sheltering 500 people under one roof is “just not doable.”

“If we can keep it at 150 to 200, then we’re able to really properly serve people, and get them either housing, detox, rehab — whatever services they need,” Hays said of this year’s mass care shelter.

City officials also want to focus on long-term solutions that will reduce homelessness, like adding supportive and low-income housing, substance misuse and mental health treatment and more. And funding it all is a balancing act.

“Every dollar you’re spending on shelter is probably a dollar not available for housing and moving people out of shelter,” said Meg Zaletel, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. She is also the Assembly’s vice chair.


Anchorage has, at least in part, a plan for emergency cold weather sheltering this winter that is “transformational” for the community, Constant said.

“We are finally establishing shelter opportunities that are non-congregate and congregate that are going to allow people to not be warehoused in mass shelters for the first time in years,” Constant said during Tuesday night’s Assembly meeting.

“That’s why it’s been pretty disappointing to listen to the rhetoric coming from the administration talking and disparaging the plan and trying to move us back to a conversation of warehousing 1,000 people in a mass tent,” he said.

‘Just a lot of finger pointing’

Bronson has also pinned blame on the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness for the city’s 400-person planning number for shelter this winter.

Zaletel said while her group confirmed 400 was a “fine planning number” over the summer, “we were really clear about how many people we thought were unsheltered in our community — about 750,” she said. “But we’re also not in charge of creating the emergency cold weather shelter plan.”

Bronson could have directed the health department to plan for more people, Zaletel said.

But also, Zaletel and other Assembly members assert that while the city might need to add more shelter beds later, it is too early to panic.

“You plan shelter like seats on a bus. Not everybody who may ride the bus will ride on the same day, all the time, at the same time,” Zaletel said.


People flow in and out of shelter, depending on their circumstances, Zaletel and Rivera said in separate interviews. Some people would rather stay camping in the cold than move into a congregate shelter, where people all sleep in the same area, but would take a hotel room bed over camping.

Some beds will also open as Henning staff and other service providers help people get into housing.

For now, Zaletel is comfortable with the 524-bed plan, she said — until the city sees how many people are consistently using the shelters, and how quickly people can move from shelter into housing.

“There are things we don’t know yet. This is the most emergency cold weather shelter that’s been put on at the start of winter. So let’s see what happens,” she said.

Some Assembly members have also expressed doubt over the accuracy of the nearly 1,000-person list of people seeking shelter.

People desiring a free, warm hotel room for the winter may be inflating the registration list beyond the actual need for shelter, Rivera and Constant have said.

“If one were to narrow down the list to people who are truly unsheltered, I think you’re gonna see that large number come down pretty significantly,” Rivera said during Tuesday night’s meeting.

But only about 115 people on the list — a little over 15% of those who were still waiting for a bed — have told providers they have some form of temporary shelter. Some are couch surfing or staying with a family member, or are staying in a privately run shelter like Brother Francis or Gospel Rescue Mission, according to copies of the list.

“A majority are unsheltered,” said city homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson.

Constant this summer had expressed doubt about whether the winter shelter plan included enough beds, and this week said the city will likely need more.

Hays with Henning said she doubts the list accounts for everyone who is living unsheltered right now. Earlier this week, she found six men sleeping near her office doorway downtown. She asked if they were on the list — and they replied that they didn’t know about it, she said. And other residents will become homeless and need services over the winter months.

“There is just a lot of finger pointing. But ... these are people’s lives that are getting shuffled around. Since what? 2020?” Hays said. “And then what? We’re going to stand up emergency cold weather shelter again, then we’re going to discharge them out on the street next April or May, and then next October we’re going to stand it up again. And this is just not sustainable. It’s just not working.”

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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