The Anchorage Assembly voted Tuesday night to put millions of dollars toward housing for the city’s homeless population. The vote came after the Assembly rejected a proposal from Mayor Dave Bronson that would’ve allowed for the waiving of camping limits for people who are homeless and staying at the controversial Centennial Campground.
“We’ve seen this chaotic process that ended with tragedy, this humanitarian crisis that’s happening now in Centennial Park,” said East Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who voted against Bronson’s proposal. “It is a complete failure of leadership by this mayor, and this mayor alone, acting unilaterally.”
At the end of June, Bronson’s administration closed the Sullivan Arena mass shelter that was put up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bronson also waived camping fees at the Centennial Campground in Northeast Anchorage last month, and directed homeless people to the area, in some cases bussing people from the Sullivan to the campground.
Bronson officials continually deny that the campground is a part of the city’s official response to homelessness.
Bronson proposed the measure about camping limits. The ordinance would’ve given the city Parks director the authority to waive parking restrictions at city-run campgrounds, including Centennial Campground, which would’ve allowed campers to stay longer than the 14-day limit in city law. That law hasn’t been strictly enforced at Centennial, with many campers having stayed there for more than 14 days.
In his report to the Assembly, Bronson said Centennial is a safer option than people illegally camping in the woods and off the city’s trail system.
“While we are working every angle to place people in shelter, treatment services, and in permanent housing, we will still continue to make sure that at Centennial, there is access to water, showers, restrooms and Wi-Fi as well as additional resources across the campground,” Bronson said.
Dunbar said approving Bronson’s proposal would be an endorsement of the mayor’s efforts in creating a large homeless presence at Centennial. He rejected the proposal along with eight other Assembly members, while members Jamie Allard, Randy Sulte and Kevin Cross supported it.
The campground has been a source of controversy in recent weeks, with concerns raised over the camp’s proximity to bears, a lack of available resources for homeless campers and a lack of communication with Assembly leaders and community councils. At least five bears have been shot at the campground after rifling through tents, a woman died from a drug overdose and a shootout between police and a felony suspect resulted in the suspect and an officer being hospitalized.
The city says the Salvation Army is now coordinating services there, while the parks department does security.
It’s unclear how long Centennial Campground will continue as a makeshift homeless camp. The city has not set a date for when it will stop waiving camp fees. The city estimates just over 140 people are using the campground.
More than $7 million for housing initiatives
The Assembly did pass two ordinances Tuesday night that are part of the multi-tiered “Anchored Home” plan brought forward by Assembly members Felix Rivera, Kameron Perez-Verdia and Daniel Volland to address what they call a “humanitarian housing crisis” in Anchorage.
The first ordinance gives $500,000 to United Way to renovate up to 60 housing units with another roughly $1.2 million going to the Anchorage Health Department to fund cold weather renovations for emergency shelters.
The ordinance also gives roughly $1.7 million to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness for outreach and transportation costs. Other funding goes to Christian Health Associates and Catholic Social Services for sheltering services.
Most of the more than $4 million comes from alcohol taxes that have already been appropriated for sheltering costs, with the rest also coming from the alcohol tax fund.
Assembly member Cross, of Eagle River, said using alcohol taxes to “reinvest in problems created by alcohol” was a good move, speaking favorably of the funds for the United Way’s project.
“What we see here is for individuals that are putting forth a good faith effort to improve their situation and turn themselves around,” Cross said. “And therefore they qualify for these funds.”
The Assembly approved the funding measure 9 to 2, with members Allard and Sulte voting against it.
The second ordinance approved by the Assembly gives a grant of up to $3.4 million to First Presbyterian Anchorage so the group can purchase the GuestHouse building downtown. Ideally, the building would add 110 workforce housing units and another 20 permanent supporting housing units. That funding comes from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Reverend Matt Schultz of First Presbyterian said the building won’t be a shelter, and instead will be housing for people struggling to find affordable rentals in Anchorage.
“We will be helping to provide dignified, stable housing to people who are workforce ready,” Schultz said.
The measure was passed 8-3 vote with Cross, Allard and Sulte opposed.
In total, the funding from the two ordinances passed by the Assembly came to roughly $7.6 million.