EDITORIAL: What will a winter without a mass homeless shelter look like? We’re about to find out.

On Wednesday, the Municipality of Anchorage administration rolled out its winter homelessness plan for 2023-2024, which — for better or for worse — is going to look starkly different from the past three years. The bottom line: In the absence of a mass shelter like the Sullivan Arena, it will be Anchorage’s first winter since early 2020 without such an option. The departure from the Sullivan was a long-overdue step, as it was a stopgap solution that never worked particularly well nor helped progress toward getting homeless residents onto healthier paths. But with nothing to take its place and obvious shortfalls in winter capacity, the toll when the snow flies could be brutal.

There are a few avenues Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration is contemplating in order to mitigate the shortfall in shelter capacity this winter, and the first is a redefinition of when emergency shelter capacity is required. While city code reads that the emergency shelter plan will be activated “automatically, with no further action required by the department, when the outside temperature drops to 45 degrees Fahrenheit,” the administration is proposing that “the ambient temperature... be less than 45 degrees for three or more days prior to activation.” It may seem like a small change, but three days is a long time to wait outside when the temperature is near freezing. The administration’s extension of the timeline for “plowing out” after a snowstorm, by comparison, was only an additional half-day (from 72 hours in 2020 to 84 in 2022), but we witnessed how consequential that cutback was last winter.

The expansion of existing shelter resources, which is the only facet of the plan which would address most of homeless residents’ needs quickly, appears quite limited. Only one identified shelter out of eight has any capacity to expand, and that one — Covenant House — can only expand by 25 beds, while another will lose 10 beds once the snow flies. That’s a net addition of just 15 beds. We’re as close to maxed out on existing options as it’s possible to be.

Beyond that, question marks abound. The administration suggests pursuing volunteer-led warming efforts in unused municipal or private buildings as an option, as well as relaxing sobriety requirements for churches to shelter homeless residents. Another volunteer suggestion in the plan would have restaurants donating meals on a revolving basis, which would be extraordinarily neighborly, but logistically and economically difficult for businesses already dealing with inflation-spiked supply prices and low profit margins.

One item in the administration’s plan that does raise a salient point is the suggestion that the municipality ask the state for help implementing its emergency shelter plan. It’s true that Anchorage’s issues with homelessness are at least partially owing to shortfalls in the state’s social safety net, whether in the form of food-aid chaos or mental health care gaps. The state should be doing more to address the root causes of homelessness and help municipalities coordinate their shelter plans. But the hard truth is that even if our state government were considerably more functional and diligent in fulfilling its responsibilities to Alaskans, it would not act in time to make a difference this winter — the legislative session won’t even begin until January. The time to ask the state for help in a more coordinated fashion was years ago, not with winter just around the corner and local funds close to exhausted.

Because of mutual mistrust between the administration and the Assembly, there has been little net progress toward a longer-term solution to shelter all of those in need of emergency housing. The Assembly has so far said no to Bronson’s navigation center at Tudor and Elmore (although the star-crossed facility is getting one more hearing Tuesday), and the mayor has likewise drummed up neighborhood sentiment against the use of other municipal facilities around town that the Assembly has proposed as shelter options, although this summer he finally relented in one case, allowing the use of the former Golden Lion hotel.

Unless an 11th-hour miracle shelter plan emerges that would provide for the hundreds of homeless Anchorage residents who will be on the streets and in the greenbelts this winter, we’re about to witness what happens when Anchorage’s shelter capacity is far outstripped by the number of unsheltered homeless in wintertime. Mayor Bronson said he would not be the mayor who would let people freeze to death on his watch; Assembly members have expressed similar sentiments. If they want to avoid that reality, Anchorage’s plan for sheltering its least fortunate residents this winter needs more beds and fewer question marks.

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 commentary@adn.com.