It seems the movie “Groundhog Day” has a potential sequel in the fight over Anchorage’s homeless plan.
At the end of June, the municipality closed its mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena, shuttling residents there and at other camping sites in the Anchorage area to a hastily prepared congregate campground at Centennial Park. That site proved a fiasco almost immediately, with homeless support service providers blindsided by the move and comical denials by Mayor Dave Bronson and his administration that the campground was part of the municipality’s homeless response. Though third-party groups, nonprofits and volunteers eventually helped patch over the worst of the service gaps that the ill-planned shift had created, Centennial was never a good solution — and it got worse as the latter half of the summer saw sustained, sometimes torrential rain. It was just the latest in a year-long series of unplanned, half-hearted and slapdash efforts by the Bronson administration to solve the homeless problem in Anchorage.
And now, as fall frosts and winter approach, the municipality is shutting the campground again, and sending homeless residents from there right back to the Sullivan.
When it comes to homelessness, what do we think we’re doing? Because it seems clear at this point that the pissing match between Mayor Bronson and the Assembly on the issue has painted the community into a corner. After more than a year of this, it’s hard to be optimistic about what happens next.
The optimist hopes that both the mayor and the Assembly share a genuine concern for Anchorage’s vulnerable residents. Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear based on events so far that concern outweighs each party’s desire to implement their preferred solution and deny their ideological opponents’.
The continued struggle over the Golden Lion is a case in point. Bronson’s fierce opposition to using the former hotel as a treatment center was a key plank of his mayoral campaign, and he has maintained steadfast opposition to its use even as many residents’ attitudes have softened and other options haven’t panned out. The administration has attempted to throw up roadblocks to the facility’s use, first claiming it would likely be demolished by a road project that has yet to be funded and then telling Assembly members the building isn’t in usable condition.
For its part, the Assembly seems intent on forcing the administration to use the facility, tying funding for Bronson’s homelessness priorities to a firm written commitment and effort to use the building. The two sides don’t appear to be talking, but simply trying to bludgeon the other into political submission. Both sides have so far lacked the leadership skills necessary to strike a compromise.
Other aspects of the homelessness response are similarly in disarray. Bronson and his administration have not been forthcoming with details — if they exist — of their homelessness plans, such as for camping at Centennial Park and the particulars of the proposed navigation center near Tudor and Elmore roads. Although the reticence to share details likely has roots in the justified fear that Assembly members would work to poke holes in the plan as soon as details were known, the result has been that those plans have blindsided service groups who aid in the homeless response — as well as homeless residents themselves, who have lost access to jobs and transportation because of a lack of support. The paucity of information shared by the administration has also made it easy for the Assembly to justify its decision to cast a skeptical eye on Bronson’s proposals; regardless of the two sides’ relative priorities, it’s unrealistic to expect the Assembly to fund homeless plans without being able to vet them.
If there’s any silver lining to the homeless services mess, it’s that — for better or worse — we appear to be nearing a critical decision point for several facilities, including both the Golden Lion and the navigation center. The Assembly recently postponed a decision on funding for the navigation center to its Oct. 25 meeting.
The time has come for the two sides to put aside petty political agendas and strike a compromise: The mayor must acquiesce and allow the Golden Lion to be used as a treatment facility, and the Assembly must finally approve the navigation center funding and allow the administration some leeway to see it stood up as soon as possible.
We’ve done enough backsliding, as homeless residents preparing to move back into the Sullivan Arena can testify. It’s time for forward progress. Let’s not forget the horror stories that emerged from the arena in its first stint as a mass shelter, with chaos among residents, at least one of whom nearly died due to poor care standards. Assembly members have stated on the record that their intent is to move on from the Sullivan as quickly as is possible; they and Mayor Bronson’s administration should be held to that promise.
By Oct. 25, there will be frost and perhaps snow on the ground, and it won’t be fit for people to camp outside indefinitely. Our municipal leaders on the Assembly and in the mayor’s office can show us they’re committed to better solutions on this issue by moving ahead on a concrete plan that provides for housing and treatment — not just shuffling vulnerable residents back and forth between the Sullivan Arena and campgrounds as the seasons change.