Can Anchorage’s next mayor get the city’s homeless response out of ‘crisis mode’?

Whoever wins the Anchorage mayoral election, whether that’s incumbent Mayor Dave Bronson or another of the 10 candidates in the race, will face significant challenges on homelessness.

Since Bronson took office in 2021, homelessness policies have been the source of some of the most acrimonious disagreements among city officials. And they’ve led to some of the biggest controversies of Bronson’s mayorship.

A few of Bronson’s most prominent challengers are criticizing him for his past decisions and current strategy on the city’s homelessness response.

“The current approach — it has cost time, money and lives,” candidate Suzanne LaFrance, former Anchorage Assembly chair, said in a recent interview. “We have got to get out of crisis mode on homelessness. We’re a winter city. We need to have places for people to sleep.”

Candidate Bill Popp, a former top executive of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., also said the city’s response has been “constantly in crisis mode.”

“Part of this has a lot to do with the animosity that exists between the current Assembly and the current mayor,” Popp said.

“A lot of this has to do with mistrust from the public because they’ve seen example after example of poorly executed plans that have created havoc in the neighborhoods around the facilities,” he added.


Candidate Chris Tuck, a Democratic former state legislator, has been hesitant to openly criticize Bronson during debates and interviews. Rather, Tuck has preached “togetherness.”

“You’ve got to go arm in arm. He can’t do this by himself. And any mayor that goes into this or any candidate that goes into this thinking that they can do it by themselves, is going to be a failure,” Tuck said.

In a recent interview about city homelessness plans, Bronson said Anchorage needs more shelter beds and housing, as well as support services. But Bronson added he thought the city is “incentivizing” some people under its current winter shelter policies, like providing shelter in hotel rooms. The city needs to “demand some accountability, compassionately, of these people that we need to not be living on our streets and in our parks and on our trails,” he said.

[In mayoral debate, candidates clash over Bronson’s record and Assembly’s role in it]

He also said his administration is proposing a set of changes to city code to rein in the size and location of encampments and to allow the city to clear problematic camps come summer.

“At the end of the day, we cannot let happen what’s been going on in our public spaces anymore. Certainly not this summer. We were turning a corner here. I know I’m done with it,” Bronson said.

Bronson’s record

The city’s homelessness problems have persisted for years, stretching back several mayoral administrations. Then the pandemic upended Anchorage’s network of shelters and service providers in 2020, and problems have mounted since.

In a grim record last year, at least 52 people believed to be homeless died outside in Anchorage.

Bronson has frequently foisted blame for the city’s recent unsheltered homelessness problems onto the Assembly. As Anchorage officials struggled last fall to fund and open enough winter shelter beds, Bronson said that “we could have had a 1,000-bed facility online had the Assembly not put politics over people.”

That plan was also plagued with issues. Scrapping shelter plans advanced by previous administrations, Bronson in 2021 proposed building a 1,000-person facility and navigation center in East Anchorage. Assembly members whittled down the project’s capacity to 150 to 200 people, concerned about neighborhood impacts and “warehousing” the homeless.

But they nixed the project after learning that the Bronson administration allowed millions of dollars in construction work to proceed without Assembly approval, violating city contracting rules. Also, as cost estimates for the facility ticked up, it was never clear how the Bronson administration planned to pay for running the shelter once it was built.

During a recent candidate forum, Bronson downplayed the significance of his administration’s role in the project’s demise, saying, “We did our mea culpa, we said we made a mistake. ... They killed the project.”

While serving on the Assembly, LaFrance initially helped advance the project, then later voted to shut it down after learning of the contracting violation.

[Anchorage mayoral candidates differ on how to handle looming Cook Inlet energy shortage]

LaFrance and Popp point to other major issues that arose with homelessness during Bronson’s tenure. Bronson in summer 2022 shuttered the city’s former pandemic-era Sullivan Arena mass shelter and bused homeless residents, including those vulnerable and disabled, to the city’s Centennial Park Campground. People arrived with little gear, bears raided campsites and homeless advocates decried conditions as “deplorable” and “dangerous.”

“We dump them in a campground, and then we create absolute chaos, panic, and have horrendous impacts to the surrounding neighborhoods, including a major senior housing facility,” Popp said.

The city subsequently reopened the Sullivan shelter that fall, and significant public safety issues plagued the surrounding neighborhoods.


The administration and Assembly agreed to close the Sullivan shelter for good last spring, and hundreds of homeless residents were left with nowhere to go. Anchorage soon saw large encampments established on Third Avenue downtown and near Midtown’s Cuddy Park, where vulnerable people were frequently preyed upon, drug use and violence flourished, and neighbors and businesses suffered.

“We’ve seen failed policy play out with Centennial Park, and Cuddy Park and Third Avenue,” LaFrance said.

Tuck, in an interview earlier this month, looked further back, criticizing former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s homelessness proposal — the purchase of four buildings for services — saying that Berkowitz failed to first build support from affected residents.

In a more recent interview, Tuck said Bronson’s shelter proposal also needed more community involvement.

“I know that we can come up with some pretty good solutions, and once we get the buy-in from the community, then it’s easier for the community to adopt and accept a shelter in their area,” Tuck said.

The city could offer property tax relief for residents in the area, and concentrate more public safety resources there, he said.

Winter shelter plans

Looking ahead to big-picture solutions, Bronson, LaFrance, Popp and Tuck have some similar things to say.

All four candidates agree that Anchorage needs more shelter beds. They all say the city needs more housing and supportive services like mental health, drug and alcohol treatment. They say the state should step up to help fund shelter and other service efforts.


But their priorities and strategies differ. And whoever wins the election will have just a few months to stand up a plan for shelter next winter.

This winter, beds at the city’s three emergency winter shelter sites have remained largely full. Though the city stood up more winter shelter beds than ever before, an estimated 250 to 300 people are still living unsheltered.

In an interview, Bronson said the city plans to keep at least one of its winter shelters open through the end of May.

And the city is asking the state Legislature for $4 million in a 50/50 split with the city to keep the former Solid Waste Services building shelter on 56th Avenue open year-round for 200 people.

“I think we’ll be successful in that. And then that will take us into cold weather and another budget cycle, five months from now,” Bronson said.

It’s not perfect, but it works for now, he said.

“We’ve got to get to more permanent sheltering options, certainly. We’re kind of limited right now, politically, on some things,” Bronson said. “But we’re just, we’re taking it in six-month windows. And trying to be solution-based, six-month windows at a time. I mean, we would love a far more permanent set of solutions, certainly.”

Asked what they would do if they become mayor, in interviews, LaFrance, Popp and Tuck all said they would bring all the relevant parties to the table to come up with a plan and long-term vision.

Tuck says he would convene a day-one “homeless response action team,” including policy experts, advocates, potential grant funders, law enforcement, emergency responders, medical providers and people who have been or are homeless.

Similarly, Popp said it’s the mayor’s job to unite the players involved in dealing with homelessness — the city, state and federal government, nonprofits and for-profits and the faith-based community.

“I think that we’ve got a lot of trust to regain in the community. And first and foremost that trust is going to come from clarity of, ‘This is what we’re all going to do together.’ And I don’t think we have that unity between all of the different entities,” Popp said.

On the campaign trail, LaFrance also has pledged to voters that she’ll roll out a fully funded plan for shelter during her first 100 days in office, to include non-congregate shelters, where people have their own room, and congregate — or group — shelter.


In an interview, she stressed that standing up more year-round shelter is critical.

“We want to reduce the instances of people sleeping on the streets and in our greenbelts. I believe that bringing in public and private funding together, and then leveraging the municipal resources that we have, including land and facilities — and maybe that will include the 56th Street shelter, as well — to address homelessness is what we need to do,” LaFrance said.

Calls to fund alcohol, drug treatment

Beyond the immediate need for shelter, Bronson’s challengers have discussed other strategies to reduce homelessness in interviews and debates.

They largely acknowledge the city will need to take many different approaches to see progress.

Tuck said the city needs to “crack down” on crime, drug dealing, and predation on homeless. He stressed that city needs more drug and alcohol treatment. “That’s the one key component that we’re missing,” he said during a recent candidate forum.

Also, the state needs to invest in such services in Anchorage and in other Alaska communities, Tuck said. Anchorage has borne a disproportionate burden, he said.


LaFrance said the city must work to better organize the homelessness response system, enhance access to resources, and improve the “elevator” from shelter to services to housing.

The city has the means to put more money toward mental health and drug and alcohol treatment via the alcohol tax, she said.

LaFrance also said she wants to be a “pro-housing” mayor, bolstering the city’s efforts to add more “attainable” housing, including entry-level units, and housing for very low income households and supportive housing.

“And definitely, there needs to be more collaboration with the state in a number of areas,” she said.

Popp emphasized that the system for years has failed the many vulnerable people living in parks, greenbelts and on city streets.

However, he lauded the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness’ current initiative to house 150 people out of city shelters, funded in part with a large grant from the city and modeled off of a system that has drastically reduced homelessness in Houston, Texas. Anchorage must look to solutions that have worked in other places, he said.

Bronson: ‘We’ve got to get back to reality’

Bronson, too, said the city is doing well in its housing efforts. But in an interview, he also questioned some of its current strategies.

Not everyone is ready for housing, “and we’re thin on shelter,” he said. He added he is concerned the city is “incentivizing” people.

“People come because they say, ‘I go to Anchorage and I can get a free hotel room, flat-screen TV, phone and three meals a day,’ ” Bronson said. The city is currently providing some of its winter shelter beds at the Aviator and Alex hotels.

Many people are not yet ready for housing, he said, and they need “much more intensive management.”

“We’ve got to get back to this notion of enticing compassionate responsibility on the individual themselves,” Bronson said. “We have to really encourage that, because the taxpayer is done with this.”

The city has spent tens of millions of dollars on homelessness, including with federal pandemic relief funds and with Federal Emergency Management Agency money, but that money is gone, he said.

“We’ve got to get back to reality, fiscal reality. This is expensive stuff. Now, housing is cheaper. We know that housing is cheaper than sheltering. But you have to do both. Somehow we’ve got to get to that,” Bronson 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