Public outcry on building purchases gives Assembly cause to tap the brakes

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The proposed purchase of four properties in Midtown and Downtown Anchorage to provide expanded homeless services has provoked a strong response from residents. Testifiers gave the Anchorage Assembly an earful during three straight evenings of public hearing on the issue, lobbing criticisms of varying degrees of merit against the proposal. If you don’t know where you stand on the issue, you’re not alone. Here are the facts, as we see them:

• Homelessness is a longstanding problem for Anchorage. By the municipality’s estimation, there are about 1,100 people experiencing homelessness at any given moment in the city. That number has stayed stubbornly steady, resisting efforts and initiatives to deal with the issue.

• What we’re doing so far isn’t enough. For the most part, current efforts to deal with homelessness alleviate the most pressing issues for those in need — food and overnight shelter. On the other side of the coin, efforts to deal with residents’ concerns about illegal camps and people living on the street resemble a shell game: Police and municipal officers force out campers piecemeal, but with few options for housing and lax enforcement after the initial zone abatement, those living in camps simply move from place to place. It’s an approach that doesn’t solve the problem for campers or area homeowners — homeless campers often view the process with resentment, and homeowners are upset that no real progress is made in diminishing the number of campers in the city’s green spaces.

• Mental health and substance abuse treatment are crucial steps in breaking the cycle of homelessness. Many of those for whom homelessness is a chronic problem suffer from psychological issues and are often dependent on alcohol or harder drugs. Those issues make acquiring and keeping stable housing extremely difficult, and any effort to intervene is likely to fail unless they’re addressed.

• Midtown is the right place for new facilities. In a city as sprawling as Anchorage, colocating the vast majority of homeless services for the entire municipality in one downtown location means that location will be overburdened, and other areas out of easy walking distance will be underserved. If we want solutions to succeed, they need to be placed where problems exist, and Midtown is the place where many homeless residents, particularly those not already connected with services, are living. All of that said, is the proposal currently on the table the right one for Anchorage? Does this approach address the items listed above? If it does, that’s a good thing. But there’s ample reason for Assemblymembers to be cautious when the matter comes to a vote, currently scheduled for Thursday:

• It’s a big commitment. The proposal would authorize the use of $22.5 million in federal CARES Act money to purchase and renovate the buildings, as well as roughly $15 million in funds raised by the sale of the Municipal Light and Power utility. At a time when revenue matters from the federal to the local level are very much in doubt, it’s more important than ever to make sure we’re spending money in ways that help the greatest number of people most. We should acknowledge that there’s an opportunity cost to spending the CARES money in particular on this project. Is it the best way to help Anchorage deal with and recover from the pandemic?

• If the city is sitting on nearly $40 million in available cash, it has a responsibility to deploy those funds in a way that does the most good for the most people during these unprecedented times. These funds could assist small businesses that have been closed, people who have been laid off, or otherwise bridge the local economy to normalcy.

• Many members of the public feel the process has been rushed, without a chance for meaningful input. The municipality has pointed to the fact that plans for addressing homelessness have been in the works for years, but it’s true that this specific proposal has been a new and fast-moving one, designed to take advantage of the windfall of CARES funds. Residents felt blindsided by the speed with which the proposal is moving. Some concerns are simply not-in-my-backyard-ism, which should be given little weight — these facilities have to go somewhere, and wherever they do, some nearby residents will be upset. But they’re not wrong that the process, relative to the speed of many municipal initiatives, seems hasty. The municipality’s sometimes checkered history with landmark projects (the SAP accounting software fiasco and the botched Port of Alaska expansion stand out as particular low points) is reason enough that the Assembly would be wise to take the time and make sure this is the best option for Anchorage to pursue.

Anchorage needs action on homelessness, it’s true, and the proposal before the Assembly would be a big step — and a big commitment, now and in the future — toward dealing with that problem. But it’s not clear that right now it’s the right strategy or the right use of these dollars. City leadership must make that case convincingly to the members of the public, as operating expenses for the facilities will be ongoing in years to come. If that can’t be accomplished, there’s no shame in taking a few more months to exercise due diligence and be sure this is the path the municipality wants to take.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the Anchorage Daily News editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.