The Anchorage Assembly is scheduled Tuesday to consider a request from the Health Department to open 50 more shelter beds at the city’s 150-bed emergency winter mass homeless shelter site in Midtown.
On Monday, as Anchorage was hit with another snowstorm, the city’s three sites were almost full, according to Alexis Johnson, city homeless coordinator with the Health Department. Privately owned shelters are also largely full. The city opened a total of 524 winter shelter beds last month.
Johnson said just five beds were open at the 150-bed group shelter on 56th Avenue, located in an administrative building at Solid Waste Services’ former transfer station. And 11 hotel room shelter beds were open between the city’s two non-congregate sites at the Aviator Hotel in downtown and at the Alex Hotel and Suites in Spenard.
Meanwhile, at least several hundred people are living unsheltered — camping, sleeping in vehicles or on the streets and contending with harsh, wintry conditions. At least four people believed to be homeless have so far died outside in November, including two men in wheelchairs. A record of 49 have died in total in Anchorage this year so far.
Storms this month have so far dumped around 3 feet of snow in Anchorage. On Monday, fresh snowfall triggered more power outages and worsened already abysmal road and sidewalk conditions in some areas.
Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee, said because the shelters have been consistently full or close to full, the administration has a good case to make for the additional 50 beds.
“It makes sense for us to expand the emergency cold weather shelter system to accommodate more folks, so yes, I do suspect it will be approved,” Rivera said.
Johnson also said that a local organization, Graceful Touch Transitional Services, has offered to open a 50-person warming facility in the Fairview neighborhood, though it would need about $225,000 in city funding.
With more snowy weather and colder temperatures forecasted, Rivera said he’s worried. Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration should look for ways to quickly open one or more warming areas, places where people can temporarily get out of the cold, Rivera said.
Rivera said he advised the administration to look into setting up a warming area in Midtown, as well as the possible location in Fairview.
Many people currently living outside have said they prefer camping over staying in a group shelter like the one on 56th Avenue, but they need places they can go to warm up. People who have been kicked out of shelter also need somewhere to go. Finally, the warming area is needed for people who want shelter when beds are full.
“It’s supposed to dip into the negatives next week,” Rivera said. “And my biggest concern is that we don’t have any warning areas set up or any kind of efforts for folks during those few days of extreme cold, and we’re going to be having to keep folks safe and keep folks warm.”
If the Assembly on Tuesday approves adding 50 more beds at the 56th Avenue shelter, and if the administration opens two warming areas and finds a way to add 50 more non-congregate shelter beds, like what is currently being done at two local hotels, that should be enough to meet the need, Rivera said.
Shawn Hays, CEO of nonprofit Henning, Inc., said the city needs more shelter beds and at least one warming area. Henning is contracted to run the city’s mass shelter and the Alex Hotel shelter, and is also helping with the Aviator Hotel site.
“My biggest concern is that more people are going to freeze to death due to inadequate shelter space,” Hays said.