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Filling the gaps in Anchorage’s safety net

  • Author: Richard Mandsager
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 3
  • Published September 3

Cots provides social distancing for 240 clients at the emergency shelter for men inside the Sullivan Arena during the COVID-19 pandemic on April 29. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Can we get our city “to be more like Sully”?

I want to thank the mayor and the Anchorage Assembly for developing a plan for smaller, distributed adult day and night shelters with engagement centers. The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled us to learn a great deal about the positive impacts that happen when there is more space for people experiencing homelessness and when we provide a resource hub. Now Anchorage has the opportunity to make permanent this common-sense strategy so that people experiencing homelessness are best situated for a better life.

Houston, Boston, Salt Lake City and Denver are among the cities that have developed engagement centers in recent years. What is an engagement center? It is a welcoming place where relationships and connections are made to help individuals move beyond the experience of homelessness. Agencies and services come to clients, instead of waiting for clients to come to them. And instead of offering prepackaged services, agencies work with individuals to shape a way out of homelessness that makes sense for them. We have tested the effectiveness of this strategy during the pandemic through a makeshift resource hub at Sullivan Arena. Initially in tents with laptops, and now inside Sullivan Arena, staff from several agencies build relationships with individuals who are ready for a change. One couple long on the streets connected with Cook Inlet Tribal Council and found their way to treatment. One individual was feeling discouraged over opposition to the municipal plan, then, while taking a hot shower at Sullivan Arena, had an epiphany. “I’m lucky I got Sully,” the client said. “I’m surrounded by people like me, people with big hearts and open arms, people who always share what little they got. Even the staff here treats us like we’re somebody. … You think we can ever get our city, our country, to be more like Sully?”

Permanent engagement centers will allow this valuable work to continue and grow.

Rasmuson Foundation is committed to providing up to $3.5 million for initial operations of engagement centers during the first two years as these services get underway.

Development of day engagement centers and night shelter services in the same facility will reduce pressure on businesses, the library, and the streets for places to go during the day. During the time of COVID-19, providing a safe place during the day as well as at night at both Brother Francis Shelter and Sullivan Arena has proven the benefit.

Anchorage should stop concentrating homelessness services in Fairview and downtown. Allowing shelters and engagement centers in locations in addition to PLI (Public Lands and Institutions)-zoned properties will help develop them in other places in Anchorage. Shelter services should be close to bus routes and have access to other needed services.

Now that the Assembly has authorized the purchase of these properties, organizations working to solve homelessness can move forward with engagement centers for daytime as well as emergency shelters for safe sleeping at night. Another crucial element in the works is a new residential treatment center for substance misuse. The municipality has laid out a path to leave Sullivan Arena — and develop new supports to help solve homelessness.

Private businesses, individuals and philanthropy organizations have always contributed a great deal of the funds for the continuum of services for people experiencing homelessness. More gaps remain to be filled. We invite all of Anchorage to be part of the solution. Donate to organizations that provide shelter, meals and advocate. When it’s again safe to do so, volunteer and learn firsthand about the innovative work underway in our city. Let’s all step up to be good neighbors and build a place that is healthier for all.

Richard Mandsager, M.D., is a Senior Fellow for Homelessness with Rasmuson Foundation. He serves on the Anchorage Homeless Leadership Council and has previously worked as director of the state Division of Public Health, head of The Children’s Hospital at Providence, and as Providence Alaska Medical Center’s chief executive.

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