When the Anchorage Assembly torpedoed Mayor Dave Bronson’s ambitious mass homeless shelter proposal July 13, it came as a shock to many residents invested in the path forward. It’s not exactly a surprise for the Assembly to view Bronson’s plan skeptically; in addition to its members’ policy disagreements with the new mayor, the fast-ballooning cost of the proposed facility deserved scrutiny. What the Assembly’s action laid bare, however, is that with less than three months until federal money will very likely run out for the operation of the temporary mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena, Anchorage is effectively back at square one on a homelessness solution — and at this point, the Assembly has no one to blame but themselves.
The path that brought us here is circuitous: The windfall of federal funding during the pandemic spurred the municipality to think bigger about confronting Anchorage’s problem with homelessness, both in terms of facilities and the breadth of services they offer. That led to plans by the Berkowitz administration to decentralize homeless services, learning from the backlash to the concentrated population near the Third Avenue and Karluk Street homeless services corridor. A year ago, the municipality made plans to buy four properties — the former Golden Lion hotel, the midtown Alaska Club building, America’s Best Value Inn & Suites, and Bean’s Cafe — and make each a center for different aspects of services related to homelessness.
But the plan didn’t work out the way the municipality intended. The Golden Lion purchase, intended to provide substance abuse treatment, went forward despite public outcry, but the Alaska Club building and the America’s Best Value Inn were found wanting and plans to purchase them were axed — and, in the case of the Alaska Club, eventually resurrected. Instead of the municipality purchasing Bean’s Cafe, a housing group led by Weidner Properties and Rasmuson Foundation stepped in.
Some of those developments were good: In the case of the purchase of Bean’s Cafe and nearby properties, the housing group promised upgrades and more structured services, and having the facility in nonprofit hands means taxpayers won’t foot the bill for purchase or operation. But as to the others, there was a distressing common theme: As pieces of the puzzle fell apart, the administration and Assembly didn’t act with urgency to find other options; instead, they waited for a new administration to spell out its vision — and then they abruptly voted it down, too — without bothering to debate the merits of altering it or providing an alternate path.
So here we are, 14 months into the Sullivan Arena being used as a mass shelter and little in the way of options to replace it. And although the arena has been a workable short-term solution, it has also been an expensive one — as of February, after about 11 months of use, it had cost $8.7 million to operate. And unless the administration is able to sweet-talk federal officials into a Hail Mary of an extension, we’re less than three months from Anchorage residents footing that bill, as FEMA funding for the site runs out Sept. 30. After that date, after having 14 months to plan ahead and effectively doing nothing, the Assembly will be stuck funding the $26,000-per-day facility.
Perhaps not surprisingly, having realized they’ve largely squandered the past year, some members of the Assembly have proposed keeping the Sullivan Arena as a shelter while they research other options. If that feels a little like the Legislature’s years-long inability to develop a long-term budget solution, it should: Both are born of the same inertia, the sense that even if it isn’t ideal, the status quo is working well enough and the hard decisions can be made later. And both have real costs to Alaskans who ultimately bear the cost, in spent savings and wasted resources. The Assembly created this problem when, under the leadership of Chair Felix Rivera and now Suzanne LaFrance, it did nothing to try to solve a problem it knew was coming as shelter options fell through. That’s the height of irresponsible governance.
The Bronson plan’s flaws were evident, but it was at least a starting point for discussion — or could have been. Whether members agreed or disagreed with aspects of the proposal, it was the most clear-eyed attempt to solve homelessness that Anchorage has seen in decades. If there were aspects members disagreed with, they should have done so by putting it on the table for a discussion. That’s how compromises are made. A glimpse of that discussion was evident in an amendment offered by Assembly members Meg Zaletel and Forrest Dunbar, which would have scaled back Bronson’s mass shelter and tied it to the Alaska Club purchase. But the chance to debate that proposal died, too, thanks to the Assembly’s decision to kill the measure outright. Based on recent events, residents are right to assume that the Assembly is not interested in fully confronting this problem.
The Sullivan Arena has been in operation as a mass shelter for nearly a year and a half, and in a matter of weeks, funding for its continued operation is set to run out. Inaction — the course that the Assembly has charted for more than a year — is no longer an option. Continuing with the Sullivan as a mass shelter despite its obvious shortcomings and significant expense is similarly irresponsible. After kicking the can down the road, the Assembly no longer has the luxury of waiting for plans to be offered up, only to swat them down without a public hearing. Assembly chair Suzanne LaFrance put out a statement Wednesday reassuring the public that the group and the mayor’s administration are working on a compromise solution. That solution needs to be worked out transparently and urgently, because Sept. 30 is fast approaching — and so is winter, when the consequences of not having an adequate shelter solution will become far more severe. We can’t afford to play petty politics for another year.
Correction: The original version of this commentary included an erroneous reference to properties purchased in the area of Third Avenue and Karluk Street.