After more than two years, COVID-19 sheltering operations in Anchorage will come to an end on July 1. At the forefront of this discussion is the Sullivan Arena.
Established in the early days of the pandemic as a place for those experiencing homelessness to be monitored and, if needed, sent for medical care, it also addressed community fears regarding the spread of COVID-19. Because this population did not have the ability to “hunker down” or easily test and quarantine when ill, a previous administration believed it made sense to allow these individuals to stay in one monitored location.
Regardless of how we got here, I’m not here to relitigate the past. The impending termination of the state public health emergency order and expected July 1 changes to FEMA reimbursement guidelines will terminate eligibility for “congregate sheltering.” There is no gray area. The Sullivan shelter, as a component of the emergency COVID-19 response, must close its doors on July 1.
We’ve known this day was coming for many months. The date has long been agreed to by both the administration and Assembly members assigned to the Facilitated Group — a weekly meeting where both sides sit down and discuss how to move forward on this important issue. But as we approach July 1, it’s worth looking back at how we’ve navigated the past two years.
The Sullivan operation, at a cost of approximately $1 million per month, has certainly helped control the spread of COVID-19. However, the extraordinary price for the services provided — currently borne by taxpayers, as we wait for FEMA reimbursements — was always tough to justify. After all, it’s hard to imagine a less-hospitable environment than a concrete floor in a windowless building.
Was this the best possible use of tens of millions of dollars? We simply don’t know.
But there’s a big silver lining. The COVID-19 sheltering operations brought together countless individuals and organizations in support of solving the homelessness crisis in Anchorage. We’re making more progress today than we ever have at any point in our city’s history.
That’s important because I’ve heard a worrying amount of doom-and-gloom talk about our homelessness crisis in recent days. The reality is that hundreds of new transitional housing units now exist that did not prior to the pandemic. These include 83 beds at the former Sockeye Inn for seniors and the medically infirm, 130 rooms at the former GuestHouse for workforce supportive housing, and 80 similar rooms at the Aviator Hotel. This fall, the Salvation Army will be reopening its earthquake-damaged facility on 48th Avenue with an additional 68 substance misuse treatment beds.
Perhaps most significantly, the municipality will be taking a direct role in the homelessness crisis with the planned opening of the navigation center this fall. This 150-bed combined shelter and homelessness navigation center will provide an entry point into the system for hundreds of individuals in Anchorage who don’t know where to start. Case managers will work diligently with clients who have lost their homes or are at risk of losing their homes and assist them in successfully reintegrating with society. Even more exciting — a second, privately run navigation center is expected to open next summer.
The progress made in the past year on this issue is historic. Never before have so many people come together to address the homelessness crisis in Anchorage. But what we will never be able to do is to solve this problem overnight. Even Helsinki, often touted as the ultimate homelessness success story, spent a quarter century reducing homelessness by two-thirds.
The work ahead is long, and no single entity will solve homelessness in Anchorage on July 1. One step at a time is how we do this. It’s the Downtown Hope Center offering to take a few more clients during the summer and feed everyone in need for lunch. It’s Weidner Apartment Homes and the Rasmuson Foundation teaming up to purchase a building from Bean’s Café to operate a navigation center on Third Avenue. It’s volunteers at Brother Francis Shelter working overtime to finish their remodel this week. It’s the Salvation Army overcoming earthquake damage and bringing crucial treatment beds back online. It’s the community around the new municipal navigation center agreeing to compromise by reducing the proposed shelter count to 150.
All these seemingly independent steps have put us one step closer to getting a handle on this humanitarian crisis. They give me faith that despite vast political and ideological differences, we can address this community problem together.
As we get through these last tough weeks of Sullivan operations, all I ask is that we keep a sense of perspective. Let’s focus on what brings us together as we look to the future of our city.
Dave Bronson, elected in 2021, is the mayor of Anchorage.
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