Alaska News

Some of the Anchorage's chronically homeless will get new housing

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz on Tuesday announced the opening of 56 new housing units near Merrill Field for city residents who are alcoholic, homeless, or have mental illness.

The rooming facility, which is within the Fairview Business District and the Mountain View Community Council area, will be run by the nonprofit Rural CAP at Safe Harbor Inn, which has previously offered short-term "transitional housing," according to a prepared statement from Berkowitz's office.

The project, near the corner of East Fourth Avenue and Sitka Street, will use $200,000 in city money plus $1.5 million in state and federal funding, enough to keep the facility open for three years, Berkowitz's statement said.

In a phone interview, Berkowitz said the effort represented a quick way for the city to provide more efficient care to a substantial slice of its population of homeless and alcoholic or mentally ill residents, which he estimated at about 300.

"It is a smart use of municipal money -- it leverages funds and it goes a long way towards solving a problem that we see every day," Berkowitz said.

The $200,000 in city money that Berkowitz plans to use has already been set aside by the Anchorage Assembly to help chronic alcoholics. Former Mayor Dan Sullivan originally proposed that the money be used to send homeless alcoholics to a Seattle treatment program that he read about in an in-flight magazine, but Assembly members rejected that idea during this year's budget process.

Berkowitz's administration says using the funding for the new project is more efficient than leaving homeless alcoholics on the street, where they can each cost the city more than $60,000 a year for emergency services and medical care, according to a Rural CAP estimate.


Berkowitz said he plans to seek Assembly members' support for his proposal, but added that since they've already set aside the $200,000, he doesn't need their approval to spend it.

"And I would hope that they would look at this as an opportunity to help solve the problem rather than some kind of contest between the mayor and the Assembly," Berkowitz said.

Patrick Flynn, the Assembly member who represents Fairview, said he wasn't aware of the project and declined to comment on it specifically.

He acknowledged that the money could technically be spent by the Berkowitz administration without an Assembly vote. But Flynn added that seeking the Assembly's approval would be the "wise course."

"To the extent possible, an effective executive gets buy-in from the legislative branch," he said.

Christopher Constant, the president of Fairview's community council, said the project was the right thing to do and a good way to take more than 50 people off Anchorage streets.

Constant also objected to what he characterized as further concentration in the neighborhood of the city's social service providers and homeless housing. Safe Harbor Inn is less than a mile from Karluk Manor, another Rural CAP facility that houses nearly 50 chronic alcoholics.

"We're hoping that eventually the policymakers will finally grasp the idea that we need to start the scattered sites," Constant said. But, he added: "All of those neighborhoods are going to fight it because their simple answer is: 'This problem belongs in Fairview.' "

Berkowitz said he was taking advantage of "a project that was in front of us right now." But he acknowledged that the neighborhood's concerns are legitimate, and he said that as his administration develops similar housing projects in the future, "they're going to be solutions that are shared across the city."

The Assembly, meanwhile, has been separately exploring ways to help the city's homeless alcoholics and drug addicts. Members last year formed a special committee to study the problem, headed by Assemblyman Bill Evans, and its recommendations are expected next month.

Evans said he was glad the new housing project would receive federal and state matching money, and called it a "piece of the puzzle." But he added that his committee was also investigating whether other programs need funding, like detox facilities that help alcoholics stop drinking.

Evans said the Berkowitz administration didn't inform him about the new project before Tuesday's announcement.

"It's a bit presumptuous to just assume that we would agree to this proposal," Evans said. He added: "I understand things happen quickly at times -- you can't be waiting on long-term committee processes. I'm sure at some point the mayor will want to brief us on this, and I look forward to it."

Rural CAP plans to pick residents for the new housing program based on what its executive director, David Hardenbergh, described as a "vulnerability index." It accounts for factors like the length of time a person has been homeless, as well as how often they're admitted to the emergency room and the number of times they've been picked up by the city patrol service that transports incapacitated alcoholics to a sleep-off center.

"We're doing the opposite of cherry picking the most easy to serve," Hardenbergh said. "We're finding the most difficult and the most vulnerable and most expensive -- and who have the highest cost to society to remain on the streets."

Without the money from the Berkowitz administration, Hardenbergh said his organization would have filled Safe Harbor Inn with higher functioning, less vulnerable residents, and would have been more dependent on rental income.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the project would be located in Fairview. While the site is in the Fairview Business District, it's located in the Mountain View Community Council area.

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at