On Tuesday the Anchorage Assembly will hold its fourth day of a public hearing on the city’s controversial plan to revamp homelessness services. Many people who testified in person so far have raised concerns about the planning process and proximity of the facilities to Midtown neighborhoods.
The city’s plan is to buy four new properties, spread out across town to make homelessness resources more accessible. Some of the new locations will include longer-term housing.
Bean’s Cafe on Third Ave. would operate as a day shelter and America Best Value Inn & Suites in Spenard would offer transitional housing. The Midtown Alaska Club would initially serve as a social services facility, with long-term plans for a homeless and transient shelter. The Best Western Golden Lion in Midtown would be a residential treatment facility for substance misuse. The Golden Lion would be open to all Anchorage residents, not just those experiencing homelessness.
“We started with every single hotel outside of 99501, including additional properties — the Northway Mall, the Front Range Apartments, among many others,” said Jason Bockenstedt, chief of staff for the Berkowitz Administration.
The city real estate department eventually landed on four that, with renovations, could be turned into adequate housing, treatment and support facilities.
Much of the negative testimony came from Midtown residents and centered on the Alaska Club and the Golden Lion.
“Maybe the Golden Lion is right,” Geneva Woods resident Allison Lonser told the assembly during testimony last week. “But I haven’t been able to see that evidence yet, or what exactly you’re going to do there. If I knew what you were going to do there, I might jump on board.”
Lonser and many other residents say they were blindsided by the city’s plan to move forward with new facilities. Some accused the city of taking advantage of the pandemic to try to force the project through, without going through proper procedures or getting enough community input.
Bockenstedt said that’s not true. He said the plan went through the assembly, multiple work sessions and several community council meetings to get to this point.
“We have followed the normal process for the introduction of ordinances,” he said. “And I want to be clear, at no point has the mayor or anyone used any type of emergency power to try to push this type of ordinance through.”
Bockenstedt said the idea to provide a treatment facility, supportive housing and other resources is not new, either. It goes back to the 2018 Anchored Home plan, which was developed with input from social service organizations and more than 700 Anchorage residents.
One of the biggest needs the plan identified is more accessible housing. That includes bridge housing, the city’s plan for America Best Value Inn & Suites, to help people who may have lost their jobs or homes and need temporary help getting back on their feet. It also includes supportive housing like what is being proposed for the Golden Lion, where people can access substance misuse treatment and other resources.
“We’ve always talked about the need to build up our capacity for additional bridge housing and permanent supportive housing,” Bockenstedt said. “The struggle has always been, where do we find the funding necessary to actually effectuate some of these changes?”
With the onset of the pandemic, that funding arrived in the form of federal CARES Act money. If it goes through, the property purchase will be made using a combination of CARES Act funding and proceeds from the sale of Municipal Light and Power last year. The ML&P sale money was already earmarked for a treatment center like the one proposed for the Golden Lion, said Bockenstedt.
As for whether the property purchase is an acceptable use of CARES Act money — the administration claims it is, since they say it’s in direct response to the need for social distancing in shelters during the pandemic, and it was not something the assembly had already budgeted for.
With social distancing causing a roughly 400-bed decrease in shelter capacity since the start of the pandemic, the city turned to the Sullivan and Boeke Arenas in March for shelter space. Oversized arena space isn’t efficient to maintain as a shelter, and the city is looking for long-term solutions, said municipal attorney Kate Vogel.
“This is in line with CDC guidelines of providing physical distancing and providing some non-congregate shelter,” she said. “Providing for homeless populations and other vulnerable populations is one of the things that the [U.S. Department of the] Treasury has told us they’re expecting governments might want to do with their funds.”
The city is required to use the CARES Act money by December 30. Vogel said purchasing hotels with CARES Act money to help people experiencing homelessness is something other cities in America are implementing now too.
Some residents testifying against the proposal expressed safety concerns about having treatment or homelessness resource facilities near schools and residential neighborhoods. Many said they feared Midtown would start to see camps like those that have popped up around Third Ave. where Bean’s Cafe and the Brother Francis Shelter operate.
Jasmine Boyle, executive director with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness said that housing is the best way to prevent camps from forming.
“For the community to find an investment of housing and get those individuals moved into housing — that is the fastest way we’re going to reduce visible homelessness, which I think is what the public very much wants to see happen as quickly as possible in Anchorage.”
Boyle said providing housing resources is also much more cost-effective than the alternatives, like prison or hospital emergency rooms. The state Office of Management and Budget estimated supportive housing for one person costs about $50 per day in Alaska, compared to $142 per day in prison and $1100 per day at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. If it’s funded and run correctly, she said, it doesn’t have to be a blight in the neighborhood.
“I use Claire House as an example of that,” she said, referencing the Catholic Social Services shelter in Spenard that has operated for more than two decades. “I hear no concerns from the community about the operations of Clare House, about the clients at Clare House, because they integrated it well into that neighborhood.”
Another point of contention for residents centered on zoning. While the Alaska Club could operate as a social services facility immediately, to eventually become a homeless and transient shelter, the city would need to complete a zoning change to allow homeless shelters in B3, or business district, areas. Most residents who testified against the property purchase plan also opposed the zoning change ordinance on last week’s assembly agenda.
However, assembly members have indicated they plan to throw out that zoning change ordinance and replace it with one that is more comprehensive. Bockenstedt said the replacement ordinance would lay out a more detailed conditional use process and articulate the assembly’s role in approving shelters in B3 zones. None of the other properties require a zoning change to operate.
About three-quarters of in-person testimony so far has been against the purchase plan, though the city said thousands of emailed comments, mostly in support, have been sent to the assembly.
Even if the assembly authorizes the city to purchase the properties, they will still have to go through price negotiations and building assessments for each one. Bockenstedt said that’s also when they’ll put out a call for social service providers to start developing operation plans tailored for each building and location.
When the city tried to find providers earlier in the process, Bockenstedt said many were unwilling to design specific operation plans until the location of each facility was confirmed. He said the city is looking for operators that have proven experience managing each type of facility. Proposals will require detailed treatment plans, security and safety strategies and budget outlines.
The city estimated annual operation costs for the facilities at $7 million. They’re hoping to begin opening facilities at the end of this year.
Public testimony on the project resumes on Tuesday at 6 p.m.