Anchorage declares a civil emergency over looming cuts

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz at a press conference in Anchorage City Hall announcing a civil emergency declaration in anticipation of increased homelessness and public safety problems stemming from state budget cuts. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)

The Municipality of Anchorage has declared a civil emergency in preparation of a dramatic increase in homelessness and public safety problems, what officials call an “unprecedented” step.

At a press conference at City Hall Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz laid out the impacts anticipated from $5.8 million in budget cuts from the governor’s vetoes to homeless assistance and social support programs.

“The amount of the cuts in Juneau, the flow of the money from Juneau, has caused us to look at an impending problem. The crisis that is coming upon us is something we can see coming our way,” Berkowitz said.

According to the administration, major problems with public safety, staffing and shelter have already started, and the mayor directed blame at the governor’s administration and state lawmakers.

The Brother Francis Shelter is set to close for four days starting August 1st, which mean 240 people will have nowhere to stay overnight. When it re-opens on August 5th, it will operate at a diminished capacity, serving 100 clients a night. In the weeks and months ahead, the city anticipates homeless families, elders and disabled individuals currently in supportive housing will also lose shelter.

“We’re expecting a total of 800 individuals from this community alone who are going to lose their housing,” Berkowitz said, a figure in line with projections from the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “People who are teetering on the edge of keeping their housing, vulnerable individuals who are counting on their senior benefits. And the consequence of those individuals landing on the street is different from the population that is currently on the street, that is a very vulnerable population.”

Berkowitz warned of ripple effects that will strain the city’s emergency response system, including a higher burden placed on the Fire Department’s ambulance crews and emergency rooms. The city’s abatement program clearing trash from evicted campers along the greenbelt will cease, largely due to legal requirements that there be an alternative housing option in order for authorities to evict people from municipal land. According to the mayor’s administration, layoffs at the university and local organizations losing state funding are expected to push more individuals into financial instability.

The emergency declaration allows the mayor’s office to bypass normal rules and protocols for staffing, procurement, as well as some planning and zoning restrictions. The Administration says this gives the city more flexibility to quickly respond to crises. It does not bring any additional state or federal funds at this time.

The mayor’s office is presenting a preliminary plan to the Assembly’s homelessness committee on Friday. The body is also seeking feedback from community members about what to do.

“These actions can include allocating funding to service providers in Anchorage to address some of the reductions in services. Developing an alternative sheltering option, including establishing temporary sanctioned camps. Or identifying other facilities that can house people temporarily,” said Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia.

The civil emergency is in effect for 48 hours until the Assembly votes on whether or not to extend it.