EDITORIAL: Anchorage needs homelessness progress — now, not later

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Once again, Anchorage has arrived at summer with little in the way of a plan to address homelessness over the next few months — to say nothing of the coming winter, when resources must be in place for indoor shelter to prevent a return to the Sullivan Arena. Once again, the municipality is reverting to its cycle of abatement, moving camps around without meaningfully combating the root causes of homeless residents’ lack of shelter. Even the stopgap measure of providing a handful of sanctioned campsites for the next three months hangs in limbo.

Unless municipal leaders — the Anchorage Assembly and Mayor Dave Bronson — do something now, Anchorage will fall back on the crutch of the Sullivan mass shelter for the fourth year in a row come the fall. And that should be unacceptable to residents for the lack of progress it represents.

The Sanctioned Camp Community Task Force proposed that the municipality open five sanctioned campsites around the city by June 19, hoping to avoid last year’s Centennial Park Campground debacle in which homeless residents were pushed into a sort of open-air Sullivan situation with even less in the way of security, services and support. The idea is controversial in the first place and so far, the Assembly and the Bronson administration have balked at the cost, with homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson unwilling to commit to even one sanctioned camp in Midtown. If a single camp is considered too expensive, it’s hard to see the municipality finding the funds to address a more permanent shelter solution.

One glimmer of hope, however, has emerged from the infusion of new Assembly members who haven’t had the contentious relationship with Bronson’s administration as some of its longer-serving members. New West Anchorage member Anna Brawley, notably, has put forward a proposal that would commit $11 million to Bronson’s great white whale, or tent, if you prefer — the navigation center near Tudor and Elmore roads.

Brawley’s proposal deserves serious consideration, and the Assembly should be willing to look at it objectively based on where we are today, not 18 months ago. Although the Bronson administration’s track record with the navigation center has been checkered at best — ballooning costs, shifting designs and capacity, and unapproved spending expansion — it looks like the only present option that would get the Assembly anywhere close to its goal of opening a new permanent, year-round low-barrier shelter by Nov. 1 under its “Clean Slate” strategy. Assembly members are likely to be wary due to their past experience with the navigation center, but that can be a positive, too — any plan that merits consideration also merits scrutiny, and the Assembly should be able to erect spending guardrails that avoid a repeat of last year’s fiasco with work at the site. Assembly members must set their egos aside and recognize the reality that the people of Anchorage have contributed significant resources to the project already, and that going forward the project is the best use of public funds if they are serious about not reopening the Sullivan as a shelter in October. We’ve been saying it for years: Winter is coming.

In an effort to get past opposition from neighbors that has stymied progress toward other shelter options, the Assembly is planning on doing consensus-building around a plan at meetings in July. That’s a noble goal, but it’s also abundantly clear that some residents will always speak loudly against a plan that includes components close to their house, and everywhere is someone’s backyard. While getting community members on board with shelter locations is important, it shouldn’t be elevated above the ultimate goal of securing a year-round low-barrier shelter before the snow flies. It wouldn’t take very many listening sessions and delayed votes to bring us to October and a panicked return to the Sullivan, an option no one should want. Now is the time for decisive action.

There’s still time to make progress on shelter solutions this summer — but there’s also no time to waste. The Assembly and Mayor Bronson’s administration should recognize the urgency of Anchorage’s current position and work quickly to stand up better shelter options, and realize that the best option — despite the acrimony of the past — is the navigation center.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email