The Anchorage Assembly unanimously approved opening another 50 beds at the city’s emergency winter mass homeless shelter site in Midtown, bringing its total capacity up to 200.
The Anchorage Health Department called for the shelter’s expansion as the city’s three winter shelter sites filled up and snowstorms buried the city, bringing harsh winter conditions for the at least several hundred people living unsheltered in the city.
Last month, the city opened 524 beds in three winter shelters, including 374 in two local hotels and 150 cots set up in the large bay area of an administrative building at Solid Waste Services’ former transfer station on 56th Avenue.
The 50 additional cots are already set up and ready for clients seeking refuge from the cold, city homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson told Assembly members during Tuesday’s special meeting on the matter. The facility will only open the beds to people when all other low-barrier shelters are filled to 90% or more, according to the measure.
The Health Department is working with the nonprofit Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness in order to prioritize the most vulnerable people for the additional shelter beds, Johnson said.
At least four people believed to be homeless have so far died outside in November, including two men in wheelchairs. In total, a record 49 people died so far in Anchorage this year. (People die outside from a variety of causes. A medical examiner analysis of outdoor deaths in Anchorage this year found that the three most common causes were drug-related overdose, cardiac arrest and hypothermia.)
The city’s registration list for emergency shelter totaled about 1,200 people as of Monday, according to Henning, Inc., the local nonprofit contracted by the city to run the 56th Avenue shelter.
More than 500 people on that list are currently in one of the three city shelters, leaving about 700 people who haven’t been able to get a city shelter bed. Of those 700, at least about 100 or more reported already having some sort of shelter, such as in a private shelter, couch surfing or staying with family.
However, not everyone in the remaining 600 wants to go into the group mass shelter. Some have indicated they prefer a hotel room shelter bed or to live outside.
“Utilization is going to drive the path forward,” said Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the Housing and Homelessness Committee.
Once the city has the additional 50 beds online, how quickly they fill and how long they’re filled to 90% or more will indicate whether the city should open more shelter, or scale back, he said.
The city is also looking into opening a 50-person warming area near downtown through a local organization, Johnson said.