At long last, the emergency mass shelter at Sullivan Arena is closed. However, in a mass-scale echo of the homeless camp clearings across Anchorage’s greenbelt, its closing doesn’t signal the elimination of the problem it was meant to address, but rather its relocation. Now, instead of a grid of cots across the floor of Anchorage’s biggest indoor sports venue, there is a patchwork of tents and vehicles at Centennial Campground. A long-term plan to help Anchorage’s unsheltered homeless population looks for all the world like it’s as far off as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic started.
To be clear, the closure of the Sullivan Arena as an emergency mass shelter was both overdue and necessary. Though the building had a few big positives — it was huge, and it was centrally located — it was always a stopgap solution, and its configuration reflected that. The lack of will to move forward combined with contentiousness between the mayor and Assembly over Anchorage’s long-term homeless plan had already caused the municipality to lean on the Sullivan for too long; it was a facility convenient enough to allow for action on the issue to be delayed again and again — despite its utter lack of fitness for that use.
The problem, however, is that simply pushing homeless Anchorage residents to an outdoor campground doesn’t in itself address any of the structural issues the municipality needs to solve, such as the standing-up of transition housing and a lack of capacity in substance abuse and mental health treatment facilities. It makes some others more difficult, such as security and connecting campers to services that could help them move on from their situations. Its out-of-the-way location might hide those problems from the rest of us, but it makes it harder for desperate folks to escape homelessness. And that’s without considering the two-way danger for campers and wildlife at a location where bears are frequent visitors. As of this week, the toll stood at four bears killed, and it’s a safe bet that without major changes in how things are arranged, there will be further unwanted human-bear interactions.
Right now, the signs relating to potential progress toward a long-term homelessness plan are not good. Experienced negotiators Tom Barrett and Belinda Breaux pulled the plug on their involvement with the process last month, citing a fundamental lack of trust between Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration and other stakeholders in the process, such as the Assembly and nonprofit housing and homelessness groups. It seems that despite early signs of philosophical alignment between the mayor and Assembly, this already difficult problem has devolved into another political food fight where each side battles to impose its will on the other.
There have been some steps toward new facilities and services, such as Assembly approval of a $6.2 million navigation center off Elmore Road and a complex care facility for medically fragile people that recently opened at the former Sockeye Inn. But there are still too many gaps in the safety net the municipality is erecting, too many rushed plans without consulting other major funders and service providers, too many political barriers preventing Bronson’s administration, the Assembly and other stakeholders from making real progress toward long-term solutions.
That’s where you have a part to play. Anchorage residents have been paying attention to the homelessness issue, but too few residents have been speaking out — clearly, forcefully and in public — about their expectations that the issue be meaningfully addressed, not just shuffled from location to location. In the end, it’s good that the Sullivan Arena mass shelter was closed — it needed to be done. But at the same time, let’s not let the inertia and finger-pointing we’ve seen from city government for the last two years continue to stymie progress on this. Winter is coming faster than any of us want, and we should make it clear to our elected officials that entering the snowy season with homeless residents left outside at a campground, whether that number is a few dozen or a few hundred, is unacceptable.