Stakeholders optimistic over new plan for homelessness center near downtown Anchorage

A bunch of machinery covered in snow behind a sign that advertizes and auction
The Grubstake Auction Company yard on Feb. 26, 2021, which will be purchased by a real estate company and a non-profit to convert the area into a homelessness resource hub. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Big changes could be coming to an area near downtown Anchorage that has long drawn neighbors’ complaints over illegal camping, litter, police calls and drug use.

The Rasmuson Foundation and Weidner Apartments recently announced the purchase of properties surrounding the Brother Francis Shelter, and plans to convert the area into a homeless services resource hub. 

Stakeholders are optimistic the plan will bring helpful change.

“It’s such a gift to our community,” said Lisa Aquino, who leads Catholic Social Services, which runs the Brother Francis Shelter. “It’s wonderful.”

Larry Michael, who owns property near the site, was slightly less enthusiastic, but still called the plan “seductively good.”

The Brother Francis Shelter is nestled between two properties. On the western side of the shelter, there’s a barbed wire fence and “Private Property” signs enclosing the Grubstake Auction Company. Owned by Ron Alleva, the lot is part of the recent purchase. 

The city had previously sought to buy the property, but couldn’t reach a deal with Alleva, said Jason Bockenstedt, Chief of Staff for the Anchorage mayor. 

“We just were never able, as the municipality, to figure that out over the summer with the funds that we had and what we were allowed to do with them,” he said. 

Rasmuson and Weidner Apartments then took over negotiations with $10 million each, which they pledged two years ago toward efforts to end homelessness. There aren’t any concrete plans for development of the 2.5-acre property yet, but having the space open will solve some neighborhood tension, and hopefully help guests feel more comfortable. 

“To create that sense of quiet and respect for the services and for the people that are staying on that campus …” said Aquino. “Having it be available to think about is incredible.” 

Even if the lot remains empty there could be traffic changes. The city has long been interested in redoing the traffic pattern, shifting the shelter’s entrance down the hill from the Third Avenue commercial trucking corridor for pedestrian safety.

“Not only are they going to be safer, but I think the rest of the community will view that as a big win,” said Bockenstedt, noting motorists often complain of jaywalking across Third Avenue.

Aside from the safety improvements on the west side of the block, the purchase will also include the Bean’s Cafe building to the east. Alex McKay, vice president of programs at Rasmuson Foundation, said the building will be used as a homelessness “resource hub” with a variety of amenities. 

“Maybe computer access to apply for a job or laundry to wash clothes, charge a phone, get some mail,” she said. 

More importantly, it will have staff available to connect people to resources such as housing, mental health treatment, or finding a job or transportation, she said. Bringing these resources closer to shelters has been a big lesson from the city’s successful deployment of the Sullivan Arena mass shelter during the pandemic. 

“We believe that providing deliberate onsite service getting people out of temporary shelter as quickly as possible is part of the solution,” McKay said. “And it’s a system solution. It’s a community solution.”

Rasmuson will fund the operations at the center for the first three years with $3 million, said McKay. But the plan is for the city to eventually take over operations.

“Ultimately, we do hope that once we show the effectiveness of the resource hub that the municipality will step in,” she said. 

Bockenstedt, with the city, said it’s something the administration is interested in, but it faces political and financial challenges. Recent property purchases for substance abuse treatment have drawn intense backlash from the neighborhoods where they’re located.

“Certainly, within the alcohol tax that was approved by the Assembly, there are some funds that have been set aside for these sorts of programs,” Bockenstedt said. “And as we move forward, we’re just going to have to see which one of those make the most sense for the municipality to be most involved in.”

Nearby business owners have long criticized the city’s and shelter’s operations around Third Avenue, which they say leaves nobody accountable for illegal camping on nearby streets and wooded areas. They’re cautiously optimistic that the new plans could reshape a long-blighted section of the city.

The area has generated less friction since the pandemic forced Brother Francis to cut capacity from 240 to about 120 people, but some worry the resource hub will become a draw for more people than the area can handle. 

“There’s a risk that we take in bringing people back, especially if there is not good management,” said Larry Michael, a business owner in the area, and a member of property owners group Third Avenue Radicals.

Property owners like Michael say they want assurances that some sort of community patrol will monitor what goes on outside of the campus.

“That is our primary concern: How will we manage outside it? Will it be a regular patrol? Will it be some partnership with Anchorage Police Department? What financial responsibility does this project have for any of those kinds of that?” said Michael.

Officials say those things aren’t decided yet, but Brother Francis and city officials say they don’t ever want to house as many people at the shelter as they did before the pandemic.

“It’s going to be lower than 240, probably closer to half of that — maybe around 120,” said Aquino. “But we’re going to keep looking to what the CDC guidance is, we’re going to follow the recommendations by the experts.”

The move of Bean’s Cafe’s operations will also help keep the area from becoming overcrowded. Bean’s will move and expand its operations to a nearby warehouse, but it won’t offer soup kitchen services. Instead, it will focus on meal preparation and distribute those meals to locations around town. 

In order to provide more bed space, the city will have to outfit more shelters and resource hubs around town, part of the city’s strategy approved by the Assembly. Some locations have been scoped out since the Assembly approved their purchase this summer, but once the 400-bed Sullivan Arena shuts down, officials will have to find a way to make up for the shortage of beds. 

Lisa Sauder said Bean’s Cafe hopes to continue managing shelter operations at the Sullivan Arena mass shelter once the site shuts down.

Despite their worries, neighbors in the East Third Avenue area say the plan, if well-executed, could finally relieve the area of the burden it’s had for decades. If the area can be cleaned up, they want to turn a nearby vacant property into a park, memorializing a Native Hospital that stood there a hundred years ago.

“We want to commemorate that and have that space be something we’re proud of right in our neighborhood,” said Michael, “But in order for that to happen, we need investors that see opportunity and see minimal risk.”

That, he said, will depend on the city and service providers getting the details about the project right.