Anchorage Assembly lukewarm on proposal to sanction camps for homeless population this summer

A sign in Cuddy Family Midtown Park lays out prohibited behaviors, including camping and having alcohol, near some campers drinking on the morning of May 24, 2023. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

Creating and managing five sanctioned sites across Anchorage for people without homes to camp in isn’t practical this summer, according to several Assembly members and the administration’s lead on homelessness issues. 

They met Friday to go over recommendations from a community task force sent to the Assembly last month. 

“I personally do not believe that we will be able to stand up five Cadillac plan sanctioned camps with the resources that we have, with no financial plan, by the date that’s being asked of us,” the city’s homelessness coordinator Alexis Johnson told the Assembly. “It’s just not feasible.”

Since the city’s winter shelters closed, local experts estimate that about 700 people are now camping outdoors or sleeping in cars around Anchorage. Drug use, garbage, noise and safety concerns are common in and around the larger encampments. 

Task force members have said sanctioned campsites would bring sanitation, safety and a sense of order to camps and the city’s green spaces. They’re recommending the campsites have amenities like electricity, drinking water, wi-fi, sharps containers, Narcan and fire suppression. 

Johnson said she appreciated the task force’s work and ideas, and thinks they could be implemented next summer.

The Assembly’s reception was mixed. 

“So I am not a supporter of sanctioned camps as a principle,” said Assembly Chair Chris Constant. “I believe it’s a compromise that says, ‘We’ve lost.’ Because the answer to this problem is housing, period, full stop. Housing is the most affordable solution. Housing is the only solution where the feds will help us pay at this time. Then shelter is more expensive than housing and it’s all on us. And then camps, while it sounds like a cheap solution, it’s not a cheap solution.” 

Other Assembly members said they did support taking at least some immediate action toward sanctioning camps. But they had many practical questions about finances, administrative oversight, community pushback, limited time before winter and if campers would even want to move to a sanctioned site. 

“I’m happy to support it, in the hope that we can do it,” said Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia. “Because if we could, I’d be 100% behind it. But what I’m hearing is that it’s facing many, many challenges.”

The reception was disappointing for some task force members and at least two owners of properties near an existing unsanctioned campsite following the meeting.

“Every district in the city of Anchorage is hurting one way or another. We are seeing people everywhere that we cannot help,” said Silvia Villamides, who is one of the task force leaders that also heads the Downtown Community Council and Alaska Hospitality Retailers. “And to do nothing? I don’t think that’s acceptable.” 

Sanctioned campsites aside, other city-backed efforts to alleviate homelessness are moving forward. More hotel conversions to housing are ongoing, with some 200 units expected to become available in the next two months. And the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness has been scaling up its outreach efforts to meet campers where they are with case workers, basic medical care and meals. It’s also planning to bring mobile showers and toilets. 

Assembly member Felix Rivera, who chairs the Housing and Homelessness Committee and facilitates the task force’s work, urged his colleagues to consider running with at least some of the recommendations, which also include asking private landowners to consider hosting a campsite and buying up to 90 portable shelters from the company Pallet Shelters

“The sanctioned camp community task force said pretty clearly, we need to get these stood up as soon as possible, period, point blank,” Rivera said. “Now it’s in our hands, right? … So I am amenable to amending that start time to something that may be more realistic for the administration.”

Rivera said he’ll prepare a scaled back version of the task force’s recommendations for the Assembly’s upcoming meeting on Tuesday. He anticipates a close vote. 

Johnson said that even scaling back from five sites to one or two creates its own political difficulties and fairness issues, where certain neighborhoods may feel as if they’re being targeted.

Meanwhile, the administration is preparing to clear a large encampment at and around Cuddy Family Midtown Park ahead of an outdoor concert. And the Assembly is still waiting on a policy update from the administration to clarify where, when and how it will clear camps.

a portrait of a man outside

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him atjhsieh@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremyhere.

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