Anchorage’s incoming mayoral administration detailed a plan that would upend how the city operates and funds homelessness services, centered around a proposed East Anchorage emergency shelter that could house up to 1,000 people if needed.
For the first time, the city would build and run a shelter. Currently, nonprofits pay for most of the city’s shelter beds.
“We are changing. This is a sea change,” said Dave Bronson at an interview after the presentation.
Dr. John Morris, who leads the Bronson administration’s homelessness response, presented the plan at a special meeting of the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness.
Some details were released by Assembly members last week after they met with the Bronson team. But Morris presented more specifics and released more context about the proposal at Tuesday’s presentation.
Among the new details released on Tuesday:
- The proposal calls the building a “navigation center,” with services on site to connect people with housing, medical and job services. They say because of a city-wide shortage of services, consolidating shelter in a single location would allow better access.
- The building initially focuses on setting up 400 beds to house people currently staying at the Sullivan Arena emergency shelter. Beds and service providers would be partitioned into several sound-proofed rooms within the larger shelter and possibly have walls around each bed.
- The Bronson team estimated it would cost less than $15 million to construct the shelter, plus up to $12 million per year of city funds to operate the shelter.
- The construction timeline could have the shelter up and running by mid-September. Morris suggested the most likely shelter design would be a Sprung Structure, a style of easily-constructed, prefabricated building that has been used for other similar projects around the country.
- The shelter would provide places for couples, pets, and a place to store belongings.
- The navigation center would be open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, so people could come and leave the facility at any time.
“I think philosophically, it’s pretty profound,” said Assembly member John Weddleton. “It has not been the plan of the Assembly or the city to really set up a shelter and run it with city money.”
The plan faces clear challenges. Foremost is convincing Assembly members to fund the project.
“We just need a lot more detail about this. Particularly we need costs, we need funding sources,” said East Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar. At an interview after the presentation, Dunbar doubted the estimate for building the structure in time.
“Given that they said that they want to have it ready to go by the time the weather turns, knowing that things become more expensive as you try to rush them, I think the $15 million price tag is wildly optimistic,” he said.
John Weddleton questioned some of the administration’s assertions that a new large shelter would be cheaper than a previous plan floated by the current administration to purchase an existing building. In May Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson proposed buying a former gym that could house 125 people for $5.4 million.
Other Assembly members also expressed concern about the timeline of permitting a structure in wetlands, how much time the administration would have to engage with the public, and convincing homeless people to stay in a shelter.
“If you build it, we hope they come, but all that infrastructure around it are pieces that we’ve been working on for years,” said Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia at the meeting. “I think in order for this to be successful, all the other pieces have to be in place, and I’m not sure they’re in place yet.”
Over the past few years, the Assembly has focused on building multiple, smaller shelters in different neighborhoods around town. They say concentrating people experiencing homelessness in one location risks attracting drug dealers, human traffickers and other issues the neighborhood would have to bear.
The smaller shelters have faced serious opposition from neighboring residents and businesses.
In his presentation on Tuesday, Morris acknowledged smaller shelters are better for some reasons, but argued a large shelter provides advantages.
He said it would be easier to staff services at a single shelter than at multiple locations and that it was more cost-effective to consolidate to one primary location.
He also pointed to advantages of the location: It’s near hospitals including the Alaska Native Medical Center, it’s on city-owned lands, it’s adjacent to an existing police station, and it’s already zoned to allow a shelter.
Morris also said providing permanent housing is the administration’s goal — not just shelter.
“We are committed to housing first. Housing is a solution to homelessness. Period,” he said at a post-presentation interview.
Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services which oversees some housing and shelter services, said she was encouraged that the new administration was committed to funding services. Catholic Social Services has traditionally relied on fundraising for 70% of its operations.
“In most other cities in the United States, the local government or the county or state government pays for low barrier shelter,” she said. “So this is very common and something that we at Catholic Social Services have been bringing to the previous mayors and to the Assembly for a very long time.”
But she’ll be looking closely at how the project would be funded.
The Bronson transition team said it intends to continue meeting with the community over the next two weeks before it takes office. They are hosting a community dialogue that is open to the public on Thursday at the Wilda Marston Theater at the Loussac Library from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.