Anchorage deserves answers on the homeless services mess

Sometimes, when floating down a river, hazards are easy to spot: The big boulder that will tear a hole in your raft, the overhanging tree that will knock you out of your canoe. But more often, we have to infer the presence of danger zones when we can’t see them directly: swirling water that’s likely concealing a rock below, the roar of a rapid around the next bend.

In the same way, we can’t see all of what’s going wrong with homeless services in Anchorage right now directly. But the secondary evidence is all over the place. On Thursday, the municipality’s homeless coordinator, John Morris, made a hasty exit. He resigned with no explanation on Monday, only four months into the job, and no one was told about his departure — not even most members of the Assembly, who found out Thursday morning at a work session teleconference he was supposed to attend, when they asked him a question and were told he was no longer working for the municipality.

Morris’ resignation came just days after the head of city operations at the Sullivan Arena mass shelter was fired — also with no explanation — and another municipal executive who had formerly overseen mass care at the shelter resigned. Meanwhile, troubling accounts of goings-on at the shelter since its transition from operation by Bean’s Café to the for-profit 99 Plus One Inc. have emerged, such as that of a man who nearly died at the shelter after spending weeks there seriously ill without medical attention.

So far, Mayor Dave Bronson and his administration have yet to explain what’s going on that precipitated the departure of so many top members of his homeless services team. If the administration believes that problems have been addressed by the resignations and firing, Anchorage taxpayers deserve to know what those problems were and how they were fixed. And if those problems have yet to be addressed, the public deserves to hear what the plan is going forward.

But lately, Anchorage residents haven’t heard much at all from the mayor’s office about homelessness, despite it being an avowed top priority for Bronson both before and after winning the mayor’s seat. After watching the Assembly sit on their hands for 18 months, the new mayor took hold of the rudder and brought a bold approach and energy to the problem. After his initial plan was scuttled by the Assembly and discussions over the path forward turned acrimonious, a promising compromise plan emerged in early October. But in the weeks before and since that plan came forth, Mayor Bronson and his administration have shown no inclination to move forward with it, preferring instead to stoke the fires of division by encouraging nonstop, unending testimony against a municipal mask mandate — even, as this week’s latest embarrassment of a meeting showed, after the mask debate is over and done with.

As the debate over a municipal mask mandate wore on in October, it became abundantly clear that Mayor Bronson, his municipal manager, Amy Demboski, and their Assembly ally Jamie Allard were driving anti-mask testimony, whipping up the crowd and urging a de facto filibuster of the proceedings in an attempt to stall passage of the mandate — and, consequently, everything else on the Assembly calendar. This even carried over to Wednesday’s meeting, where unmasked audience members sought to relitigate the now settled issue — with the clear support of the administration.

Throwing sand into the workings of government to spite your political opponents is a tactic often employed by those with little other recourse, who would otherwise have to sit idly by as the majority marched forward with its agenda unimpeded. But that’s not the position Mayor Bronson is in. As evidenced by the compromise plan, the Assembly finally appears perfectly willing — eager, in fact — to move forward on a long-term plan to better serve Anchorage’s homeless population. It’s now the administration hampering progress in favor of a scorched-earth campaign on masks, at the expense of every other issue.

During the first year of the pandemic, when no progress was made in charting a course away from the temporary mass shelter at the Sullivan, it was fair to lay blame on Assembly apathy and previous administrations, as they were at the helm. But Mayor Bronson promised he and his staff would act swiftly and decisively to turn the problem around, and now they’re the ones delaying progress — squabbling over masks and sending key players to the exits without explanation. “People are going to freeze. It’s that simple,” Bronson said in July, referring to the consequences if better shelter options weren’t in place for winter.

Now it’s winter, and we need that urgency — and an explanation — from the mayor on homelessness. In this river, the water moves fast, the rocks are sharp and there are many people on board who won’t make it to shore if they go in. Mayor Bronson and his team need to stop their pointless mask fight, explain the personnel changes, and grab the oars.