There has been extensive discussion over the last number of weeks regarding a plan put forth by the municipal administration for the purchase of four buildings that would be utilized for housing and treatment facilities for our homeless population.
The buildings include Bean’s Cafe off of Third Avenue, the Golden Lion Hotel on the corner of 36th Avenue and the Seward Highway, the former Alaska Club facility on Tudor Road and Alaska’s Best Value Hotel in Spenard.
The Golden Lion Hotel is located adjacent to one of the highest traffic volume intersections in the state. Many have expressed legitimate concerns regarding the inherent danger of housing people with known substance abuse problems in such a high-traffic area.
Just to the east of the hotel are large residential subdivisions, including Geneva Woods and College Village. The residents are rightly concerned about what may happen to the quality of life in their neighborhoods given the level of crime attributed to some of the homeless population.
Similar concerns have been expressed by the residents and business owners near the proposed Tudor Road location, which is another high-volume traffic area. People testifying at the Assembly meetings have shared their horror stories of the vandalism, blatant disregard for private property and the fear felt by owners and residents who have been threatened and accosted by the vagrants who wander through in various states of impairment.
These are not your typical not-in-my-backyard concerns, because the entire Anchorage community has seen what has happened in the Fairview neighborhood, including the large encampment that developed at the Brother Francis/Bean’s Cafe complex and the many years of property damage that the surrounding neighbors have endured from the users of these facilities.
Another area of concern is the lack of transparency in the development of this purchase plan. Apparently, money from the federal CARES Act will be the source of funds, although it is not clear that this is even a proper use of these funds. The way the proposal was put forth, with the intent to bypass the Planning and Zoning Commission, is also troublesome.
I believe there is a better solution. Out by Point Woronzof is the Salvation Army’s Clitheroe Center, a 42-bed facility that provides substance abuse treatment and recovery services. It has been successfully providing treatment for decades. Although the Salvation Army is a religious-based organization, their treatment is provided with a totally secular methodology.
The city owns 38 acres of undeveloped land surrounding the facility. With far less that the $22 million the mayor is proposing to spend buying buildings, we could expand and modernize Clitheroe to accommodate many more clients than its current capacity. The only utility upgrade that might be needed is to extend city water to the site, as it currently operates with well water.
Money from the recently passed alcohol tax could be used to help with operational costs, and I believe the Anchorage community would support a bond issue to help pay for the expansion. The Alaska Mental Health Trust also has millions of dollars for these purposes, the Rasmuson Foundation has pledged $45 million to help deal with homelessness and the Alaska Native Corporations need to be engaged as well. There is not a lack of available funding. We need to leave the CARES Act money for its intended purpose, helping businesses and employees affected by the pandemic.
Additionally, the Salvation Army also owns a building on East 48th Avenue that has been previously used as a treatment facility and has the capacity for 65 clients. It is now vacant and in need of repairs. There was an estimate provided a couple of years ago that the needed upgrades could be accomplished for around $1.5 million.
Apparently, the Salvation Army has presented these options to the municipality but was rebuffed. It makes no sense to be buying buildings that are ill-suited for the mayor’s intended purpose, and without a defined operational plan, when there are existing facilities available that can be expanded and upgraded to accomplish the mission.
Former Assembly chairman Dan Coffey recently wrote to current chair Felix Rivera and suggested the upgrade and expansion of the Clitheroe facility. The municipality also owns a vacant former Department of Transportation building off Commercial Drive that could be upgraded to provide some level of service to the homeless community.
Mr. Rivera responded to Mr. Coffey’s thoughtful suggestion by saying that they’ve looked at extending services to Clitheroe and it didn’t pencil out. I don’t believe that to be true. I have visited the facility, something I don’t believe any current Assembly member has done, and it would certainly be an appropriate location with the community’s investment and support.
When I was in office, we would survey the camp population as we cleaned them up, and discovered that about 50% of illegal campers had other housing options but preferred their lifestyle of inhabiting and despoiling our public spaces.
To address this, Mr. Coffey also suggested re-establishing the Municipal Court to deal with the homeless population that are committing various infractions, including trespass, public indecency, petty theft, vandalism, panhandling in traffic, etc.
As he pointed out, it is a class A misdemeanor to illegally camp in a park or public space, punishable by up to one year confinement. For repeat offenders, the court could confine them to one of the treatment facilities where there is a chance of rehabilitation.
As for the Municipal Court, Rivera said he and assemblymember Meg Zaletel did not want to criminalize the homeless. He clearly doesn’t understand the difference between those who would welcome housing and those who will not voluntarily give up their dangerous lifestyle -- dangerous to both them and Anchorage residents. None of us should have to avoid our trails and parks because we don’t know who is in the woods and what condition they are in.
Anchorage has numerous trade organizations that promote Anchorage as a place to visit and do business. They need weigh in. The Anchorage Economic Development Corp., Visit Anchorage, the Anchorage Community Development Authority, and the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce need to take a stand and oppose the mayor’s plan while a better option is right in front of us.
The bottom line is there are solutions other than spending $22 million of CARES funds, or any other funds for that matter, trying to shoehorn homeless facilities into the wrong places. What seems to be lacking is the will of our elected officials to use and to expand the tools already available, which would be a win-win for the homeless and Anchorage taxpayers.
Dan Sullivan is a businessman and member of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. He served as Anchorage mayor from 2009-2015.
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