Amid public outcry over homelessness, Anchorage seeks more shelter beds

Anchorage lawmakers, faced with a rising public furor, are searching for more effective ways to address homelessness in Alaska’s largest city.

“People are frustrated, and people are angry,” said Anchorage Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia. “We need to be thinking about both the people who are experiencing homelessness, and also the rest of the folks who live in the city, and how we find solutions that honor both.”

On June 18, the Assembly approved a temporary extension to the municipality’s cold weather shelter plan. The next day, the Assembly’s Committee on Homelessness heard nearly an hour of public testimony from a standing-room-only crowd in a packed conference room on the eighth floor of City Hall.

Perez-Verdia, the co-chair, said the committee is working on short and long-term solutions to homelessness and its effects in Anchorage. At the June 19 meeting, members discussed installing more trash cans and porta-potties in an attempt to reduce waste in public parks. They discussed shelter models in Lower 48 cities, and possibilities for increasing the number of shelter beds in Anchorage.

The municipality’s cold weather shelter plan permits approved churches and social service facilities to be used as overnight shelters when the temperature dips below 45 degrees. The program was scheduled to end in June; the recent Assembly vote extended it through Sept. 1, Perez-Verdia said. In the interim, he said, the committee will investigate ways to broaden the plan, “so that we can utilize and work with all of our partners — churches and service providers — to try and create more shelter beds within our city, but also to make sure that those shelter beds are at a certain standard.”

The Anchorage Coalition on Homelessness reports an average of fewer than 450 shelter beds in Anchorage. Anchorage’s homeless population is more than double that.

A summer 2018 count revealed approximately 1,064 homeless adults in the community, according to the municipality. That most recent count shows a decrease from the 1,304 homeless community members counted in 2017. But other numbers are on the rise: Between 2017 and 2018, the municipality received more reports from citizens, removed more debris from public parks and abated more campsites. Last summer, the municipality abated 369 camps total. This year, by summer solstice there were 162.

The topic is also drawing rising public attention, expressed via social media and letters to the editor and occasionally emotional public meetings. The June 19 meeting of the Assembly’s Committee of Homelessness saw testimony from frequent and first-time attendees alike. They spoke about the ripple effects of homelessness — its impacts on neighborhoods and parks and businesses — and their frustrations with the camps lining local trails and greenbelts.

“We’re basically enabling people who want to continue with crimes and drugs,” Anchorage resident Paul Hilling told Assembly members.

“We’re providing room service on the trails,” said Anchorage resident Linda Chase, a member of a group called the Citizens’ Coalition to Protect Our Public Spaces.

Other testifiers urged Assembly members to think about the trauma of life without shelter. Kate du Plessis asked people to think about what causes the camps in the woods.

“That is not garbage,” she said. “It is people’s only worldly possessions when they don’t even have a home.”

Next to take the mic was Anchorage resident Stephanie Rhoades, a member of the growing group of Alaskans advocating for a change in the municipal response to homelessness.

“I totally agree … about the trials and tribulations of people in the camps, but that’s also why we can’t tolerate the camps,” she said. “We shouldn’t allow people to live that way.”

The testimony ran for nearly an hour. There was a common thread: Most of the people who spoke asked lawmakers to tap community resources and work more closely with a wider range of people. Perez-Verdia agreed.

The municipality currently works alongside more than a dozen other organizations through the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. Because preventing and reducing homelessness involves many elements, members range from Catholic Social Services to Alaska Community Mental Health Services to the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to NineStar Education and Employment Services.

But policymakers can do more, Perez-Verdia said.

“What we’re not doing as well as we need to be doing is collaborating with partners,” he said. “We do feel like good things are happening and we are making some progress, but we’ve got a lot of work to be done.”

Kirsten Swann is a producer and reporter for Alaska Public Media.

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