The administration of mayor-elect Dave Bronson is floating the idea of building a temporary homeless shelter in East Anchorage, which could house up to 1,000 people after the current Sullivan Arena mass shelter closes.
The Bronson administration met with individual Assembly members this week to discuss the plan. Matt Shuckerow, a transition team spokesperson, said the administration will release details next week.
The city is facing a renewed crisis with homelessness as the Sullivan Arena mass shelter is set to be cleared out by September, returning its intended purpose as a sports venue, which will allow Anchorage’s new junior hockey team to have a practice area.
The Sullivan shelter, one of the largest emergency shelters in the country, currently houses 400 people every night. There are another 200 people without permanent housing spread throughout hotels and other locations around town, paid for with emergency COVID-19 funds. The city’s homeless population is estimated to be more than 1,000 people.
“We’re sort of between a rock and a hard place here, right now,” said Assembly member Pete Petersen, who represents East Anchorage.
Like many cities in the U.S., over the last 15 years Anchorage has moved more toward putting people experiencing homelessness directly into permanent housing, rather than emergency shelters. It’s an approach called housing first, which City leaders have embraced because it offers more stability for people dealing with mental health and substance abuse problems, reduces costly visits to emergency rooms as well as police response calls, and has less impact on surrounding neighborhoods than a mass shelter would. But there isn’t enough housing to meet the immediate need.
Over the past few years, the Assembly has pushed to set up smaller group shelters in different parts of town, so one area doesn’t become a magnet for illegal camping and loitering — or for drug dealers and human traffickers who might take advantage of vulnerable homeless populations.
“Having everybody in one area creates an undue burden on the people who live in that area. It’s like an invisible tax,” said Chris Constant, an Assembly member who represents Downtown. “So that leads me into the concerns, and that is that their proposal really is a one-size-fits all approach to put them all in one place.”
Jasmine Boyle, who heads the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, said she’s seen and heard of large-scale shelters being successful in other parts of the country. But she cautioned there are dangers to concentrating people in one area.
“There’s also people that are recovering addicts and there are drug dealers in the shelter, or people that have previously been trafficked, or sexually assaulted, and their perpetrator or someone involved with their perpetrator is in the building,” she said.
She said there are ways to mitigate those dangers, like partitioning off different units within a larger space. That would also help mitigate the spread of an infectious disease.
Assembly members said they were told a likely location of the building is Elmore and Tudor, possibly at an area adjacent to the old Anchorage Police headquarters. It’s mostly surrounded by park lands, including the Chuck Albrecht Softball fields. It’s also across the street from the Alaska Native Medical Center Campus.
Convincing homeless people to come to the shelter would be a challenge, especially in the summer months when some prefer to camp outside. Dr. John Morris, who is leading the Bronson team’s homelessness effort, emphasized in an op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News last week that the city will rely on nonprofit partners to engage people in homelessness.
“Go out and find our homeless neighbors where they are, engage them with teams of people who can earn their trust, with lived experience and training, carrying the message that there is a better, safer place for them,” he wrote.
The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness already does outreach to unsheltered people. Through a spokesperson, Morris said he was not available for comment yesterday on whether the new administration would approach it differently. Assemblymember Constant said even if people are convinced to come to the shelter, getting them to stay is even more challenging.
“These individuals are in some ways like water: You move them, and then they fill back in right to their homeostatic position where they feel like they belong,” he said.
Another concern some Assembly members have is cost. A similar facility to the one proposed recently opened in Reno, Nev. at a cost of $17 million. The 46,000 square foot Sprung shelter can house up to 900 people, according to the city.
The Bronson administration would need to convince the Assembly to fund some of the costs, while the rest could come from private donors and charity groups.
Petersen, who represents East Anchorage, said just getting the shelter built would be a challenge, given current material and worker shortages.
“Trying to construct that larger facility, in what, 90 days? — in a very short period of time would be challenging,” he said.
Assembly members and advocates said providing services like healthcare and behavioral health on location will be key to the success of any new shelter, a model employed at the Sullivan shelter. But mental health resources are already strained in Alaska.
“To figure out how to take an already slim, backlogged system and figure out how to get those services on a campus is going to be a challenge,” said Boyle, with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
Assembly members also raised concerns about bus routes and effects on nearby parks.
Eagle River Assemblywoman Crystal Kennedy said a big factor in the success of the proposal, should it be built, will be the communication with the public. Anchorage residents testified vehemently at Assembly meetings against the previous administrations’ efforts to set up shelters and treatment centers around town. Bronson campaigned against that approach as well.
Kennedy said she thinks holding a community symposium or roundtable would be the best way to present the idea. She said the administration also needs to clarify that the shelter would be temporary for the post-COVID-19 emergency the city is facing.
“I think that’s one thing that the public has expressed multiple times in the past year is that ‘We just didn’t know, you guys did this behind closed doors, now, you’ve sprung this on us.’” she said, “And you know, people don’t like surprises.”
The Bronson team is expected to present a proposal of the plan on Tuesday at 11 a.m.
This story has been updated to clarify that a possible location is at an area near the APD headquarters building, not in the building itself.