Politics and pessimism are weighing down Anchorage’s latest push for a new homeless shelter

Rows of cots are organized on the floor of an arena.
Anchorage officials have repeatedly failed to establish new, low-barrier shelter space, and have repeatedly fallen back on using the Sullivan Arena as one since 2020. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage’s elected officials don’t want to use the Sullivan Arena as a low-barrier homeless shelter beyond April. For years, they’ve generally agreed that using multiple, smaller shelters works better. 

But going from that general consensus to considering specific shelter locations goes sideways fast. The latest example played out during this week’s Anchorage Assembly meeting. 

In February, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness suggested the Arctic Recreation Center on Arctic Boulevard would be a good fit to convert into a new, permanent, low-barrier shelter. It’s for sale for $12.6 million

Assembly member Felix Rivera chairs the committee where it came up, and he was excited about the potential for 150 more beds, space for navigation services and other possibilities. His excitement was short-lived. 

“Why did I change my mind?” he said during Tuesday’s Assembly meeting. “Reality slapped me in the face pretty hard. It was a bit of a come-to-Jesus moment, really.”

The rec center is in his Assembly district, and he said he got a lot of pushback from his constituents. He asked his Assembly colleagues to drop that concept, as well as the shelter idea that Mayor Dave Bronson pushed for during his campaign in 2021 near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads – which is also in Rivera’s district. 

For the city’s most vulnerable people, the Assembly and mayor have repeatedly failed to establish new, low-barrier shelter space, and have repeatedly fallen back on using the Sullivan Arena

“I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking, ‘Not in my neighborhood,’” Rivera said. “But here’s the thing: We need to move beyond these two examples, beyond these gut reactions to what shelter can and should be in our community.” 

He said elected officials need a fresh round of engagement with the public about the municipality’s overall sheltering policies and philosophy before making decisions about specific sites. And, he claimed, that can happen with enough time to stand up a new, permanent low-barrier shelter by November.

Rivera’s attempt to take the two locations off the table was part of a resolution he proposed for a public engagement campaign he dubbed a “clean slate strategy.” 

The Assembly voted 7-4 to support the public engagement campaign – but wouldn’t drop the two shelter location ideas. 

“I don’t think a ‘clean slate’ conversation preemptively removes options from the table,” said Assembly member Daniel Volland. 

Public safety in his district has suffered from spillover effects of hosting the mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena since 2020. 

The revised resolution says the Assembly won’t make any decisions about specific shelters until after a process for the public and neighborhoods to weigh in is laid out. Rivera, who’s up for reelection, plans to host a lot of committee meetings and town hall meetings this spring and summer about permanent, year-round, low-barrier shelters. 

Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson was pessimistic that Rivera’s plan  would change things.  

“I don’t know that it gets us anywhere,” she said. “There’s a lot of discussion about, ‘Oh, it’s a clean slate,’ or ‘This is gonna be a whole new thing.’ We’ve been doing the same thing for years – it’s the same thing. And then we get feedback we don’t like, and then we try to do a new thing. And it’s the same thing.” 

Mayor Dave Bronson had a role in the latest round of pushback. Last week, he announced he would host a town hall on the Arctic Rec Center. It’s scheduled for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Friday at the rec center, located at 4855 Arctic Boulevard. 

Bronson framed individual Assembly members’ scattered discussions about its potential conversion as the “Anchorage Assembly’s plan” and said the Assembly was actively lobbying state lawmakers to fund it. 

Tuesday, he chided the Assembly for failing to engage with the public sooner. 

“I found this odd, irresponsible, bad public process,” Bronson said.

Assembly members said that was misleading and premature. No one has formally proposed the municipality buy and convert the rec center into a shelter. Some Assembly members did acknowledge they raised it as a potential project when they met with state lawmakers recently.  

At the meeting, Bronson also revived talk about building a navigation center and shelter at Tudor and Elmore. He said he is committed to finding a path forward on it. 

“This project is not abandoned. It has gone through a robust public process,” he said. “This is a project waiting for the Assembly and me to finish what we started.” 

A contractor began work on that project last year, but stopped after the administration admitted it overstepped its authority to pay for it without Assembly approval. The Assembly and mayor are still trying to resolve the unpaid contractor’s demands.

Correction: An earlier version of this story understated the sale price of the Arctic Recreation Center. It’s $12.6 million, not $12.5 million.

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him at jhsieh@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremy here.

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