“Only Nixon could go to China.”
That political axiom, referring to the famously anti-communist president’s diplomatic trip in 1972, contains a meaningful truth: Only politicians who are known by their supporters to be unimpeachable in defending their values can take the actions that would enrage them if undertaken by anyone else.
Anchorage Mayor-elect Dave Bronson may be in the same position, on a smaller scale: He may be the only one who can oversee a dramatic increase in municipal funding and effort to address homelessness in Alaska’s largest city. Based on his transition team’s presentation of an ambitious multimillion-dollar new mass shelter near the U-Med District, he’s clearly going to make it a priority.
It’s true that Bronson’s supporters would likely assail the mayor-elect’s plan if it had been put forth by the former administration or by the left-leaning members of the Assembly. His strongest supporters were galvanized, after all, by their outrage over former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s plan to spend CARES Act funds on a trio of properties for homeless services. And in fairness, it’s equally true that if the plan had been proposed by Berkowitz, the Assembly wouldn’t likely be giving it nearly so much scrutiny.
But, for Anchorage residents, the fine-tooth comb approach could be a side benefit of divided municipal government. If the mayor and Assembly were more closely aligned, Assembly members might be less rigorous in their due diligence about committing property tax dollars to such a project. And with such a tenacious issue as homelessness, plans should be vetted to make sure they have their best chance of panning out. There are still many question marks related to mayor-elect Bronson’s plan (as is to be expected at this juncture; after all, he has yet to take office): With one big centralized facility, how will the people it serves get there — and will they bother making the trip if they ordinarily reside elsewhere in the city? The proximity to medical services is a big plus, but will the nearby Campbell Creek greenbelt just result in shifting the location of illegal campsites? And the biggest question: What is the realistic cost to build and operate the facility (or facilities), and where does that money come from? These or other questions could prove problematic or intractable, and a skeptical Assembly is the public’s best friend in making sure they’re answered.
At the same time, however, the Assembly should see Bronson’s plan for what it is: A serious commitment of municipal resources toward dealing with one of the city’s most difficult and longstanding problems, on an order of magnitude that Anchorage hasn’t yet seen from any prior administration. That’s a shared priority for the Assembly and the mayor-elect, and they shouldn’t let their partisan disagreements in other policy areas keep them from working together to get a roof over the heads of some of Anchorage’s most vulnerable residents. Members of the Assembly have a duty to give this idea a fair shake.
Though Anchorage’s housing strategy so far has been marked by good intentions, public-private partnerships and substantial investment from businesses and foundations alike, the number of its residents who remain unhoused has remained stubbornly high. The reasons range from job losses during the pandemic to inadequate capacity for substance abuse and mental health treatment. But whatever the reasons for past failures, it’s clear that this problem needs fresh eyes and a fresh approach, and this proposal provides just that.
The bottom line is, homelessness is a complex, multifaceted problem, and Mayor-elect Bronson is right to recognize that the municipality will need to have more skin in the game if it expects to see progress at a quicker pace. Will it be a challenge to vet and stand up a shelter solution by the end of September, when the Sullivan Arena’s tenure as a mass shelter is set to end? Absolutely. Will aspects of the new administration’s homeless plan need to be modified to better suit the needs of our community? Likely so — previous iterations of the plan certainly did. But the idea at the heart of the plan — that Anchorage must do more to care for its unsheltered residents, and it must invest more heavily in solutions — is sound, and it should be a piece of common ground that the mayor-elect and Assembly can build upon. Imagine Bronson and the Anchorage Assembly putting aside their disagreements to make a difference for our community: Wouldn’t that be something?