Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s proposal to build a massive, temporary structure to shelter homeless people and get them connected with services has drawn mixed reactions from the public and Anchorage Assembly members.
But there’s a lot that’s still unknown that could determine whether the Assembly votes to go forward with Bronson’s plan.
Here’s what we know so far about the proposal for a city-owned shelter and its prospects.
Why does Anchorage need a new shelter?
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, the city opened an emergency mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena. About 400 people have been sleeping there every night since last fall. But as the pandemic eases, the Assembly says it wants to open the arena up to a new semi-professional hockey team in October. That means the city needs to find a new shelter for those 400 people staying at the Sullivan or they’ll be forced onto city streets overnight.
Where were people without housing staying before the pandemic?
The largest shelter was downtown, at Brother Francis. The shelter was overcrowded, with mats laid out on the floor one next to the other. It was right across from Bean’s Cafe, the soup kitchen. In cold weather, Bean’s also cleared out its dining area to fit more beds on the floor. The private organizations who ran the shelters said that it was hard for clients to get good sleep because of the close quarters.
What do we know about the new shelter proposal?
In June, incoming Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and his transition team proposed building a large, temporary shelter to house the people who would be forced out of the Sullivan Arena. The building would be a Sprung Structure — a proprietary, prefabricated insulated tent-like building.
They say the shelter would be divided into two separate buildings, with about a dozen separate rooms to keep order and to separate different groups of people, like women and men. The beds would have half walls between them. There would be a place for providers to offer services including medical appointments, housing support, drug rehab, job training and mental health care. The shelter would be located in East Anchorage, on the corner of Elmore and Tudor roads.
Why is the proposed shelter controversial?
There are three central debates about the proposal: cost efficiency, whether a large shelter is good for homeless people and whether a large shelter will negatively impact the surrounding neighborhoods.
Here’s a bit more on each debate:
The shelter would cost an estimated $15 million to build, plus an estimated $12 million per year to operate. Some Assembly members have questioned that estimate, saying the initial estimates are often much lower than the final costs, especially with material and labor shortages. The Bronson administration argues that having one building with all the services on site is more economical than staffing multiple, smaller shelters. Most experts say that’s likely true.
“The world of business knows the logical, sort of, one building is often less expensive to run than multiple buildings. Staffing one location is easier than staffing a variety of locations,” said Jasmine Boyle, the director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
Some aren’t convinced.
Assemblymember Meg Zaletel said officials told her that economies of scale only work to a point. She wants the city to buy the former Alaska Club building on Tudor Road. The city could buy the building for about $5.4 million and shelter up to 150 people there.
“They say economies of scale to save money. I think it’s economies of scale to provide good service to individuals,” Zaletel said.
2. Quality of services
The Bronson administration said that a larger, central shelter will allow it to deliver better services. It’s calling the proposal a “navigation center” where clients can get matched with services like jobs, healthcare and housing. The administration says it will be easier to staff one single larger shelter than multiple smaller ones.
Hugo Aguas, an Los Angeles-based researcher with the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council, said it’s an approach that’s worked in California to efficiently use mental health services.
“The most important thing that I love about our navigation centers here is how much we can get folks to the services they need, especially in regards to mental health,” he said.
But large shelters can create their own problems.
Zaletel said that if shelters get too big, drug dealing and sex trafficking can get out of control. It’s also harder to keep shelter guests safe when sexual assault victims and perpetrators are in the same buildings, for example. That’s what happened at the previous shelters downtown.
“There seems to be a threshold,” she said. “They noticed around the Sullivan Arena, that those who prey on the vulnerable started to come around the facility, because there were so many individuals.”
Lisa Sauder, who runs Bean’s Cafe, which operates the Sullivan shelter, disagrees. She said that the problems exist no matter the size of the shelter.
“Whether they’re sheltering 40 people or 400 people, you have the same predators that will prey on people, no matter the mass of people,” she said.
The Bronson team argues that the proposed East Anchorage site is convenient for medical services. It’s across the street from the Alaska Native Medical Center and near Providence Alaska Medical Center.
But some neighbors are concerned that medical care won’t be enough to keep people in the area.
“We don’t have a grocery store, we don’t have some sorts of places that they might want to go to,” said Andrew Gray, the treasurer of the Campbell Park Community Council, where the shelter would be built.
There are several bus lines that pass through the Alaska Native Medical Center campus. The Bronson team has not provided details about whether there would be additional buses or shuttles.
3. Effects on neighborhoods
Few people dispute that a new, mass shelter would have some impact on the surrounding neighborhood.
Previous large shelters, such as those at the Sullivan Arena and at Brother Francis, led to lots of illegal camping on side streets. Businesses complained about loitering, trash and public defecation.
Andrew Gray, of the Campbell Park Community Council, said it’s not the shelter itself that’s the concern.
“Certain people are asked to leave homeless shelters — they don’t follow the rules, they cause a disturbance or something — and then they’re asked to leave,” he said. “Those are the folks that end up camping in our backyards.”
Pete Petersen, who represents East Anchorage on the Assembly, said that the shelter could also affect the nearby trails. The site is surrounded by the paved Campbell Creek trail and connects to the Campbell Tract, which has many popular mountain biking trails. It’s also across the street from softball fields.
“We can expect that there’ll be foot traffic down in this area, and possibly people camping in the woods,” said Petersen.
In 2019, a wildfire erupted in the area. It is suspected it was caused by an illegal camper.
The Bronson administration said it will request $15 million for the construction of the shelter at the next Assembly meeting on July 13.
Assembly members appear divided on the issue with no clear consensus yet.
The Assembly needs to wait one week to hold a public hearing before it can approve the funding, so the earliest the administration could begin procuring shelter materials is July 20. The administration said that it could get the shelter built by the beginning of winter if the Assembly acts immediately.
What happens if the Assembly votes against the plan?
Bronson’s administration could declare an emergency and fund the shelter. But that poses political and practical risks.
For one, the Assembly can override an emergency declaration. And, it would likely need to vote to fund the shelter’s operations each year.
Also, Bronson campaigned against the previous administration’s perceived overreach under the pandemic emergency declaration, so declaring a disaster could make his base unhappy.
The Bronson administration hasn’t floated a Plan B, however, and if there are delays in construction or Assembly approval, the city could be forced to use the Sullivan shelter for longer.