Is Anchorage buying into the latest push to improve services and shelter for the homeless? 

A man in a beanie pours hot water into a mug.
Michael Gohring makes himself a cup of coffee in a camp behind the Sullivan Arena on Wednesday. “People here are more concerned about survival, living one day at a time,” he said. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

An ambitious Anchorage Assembly goal to get a new, permanent, low-barrier shelter up and running this fall is becoming less ambitious. 

The Assembly’s lead on homelessness issues says a new shelter likely won’t open until the end of December – well into the season for preventable frostbite and outdoor deaths. And even that shelter is far from certain. Turnout was thin at recent town halls on shelter concepts, and the Assembly and mayor have clashed over which options the city should pursue. 

“If history is any indication, if we approve a plan that does not have community buy-in, I have no faith that this administration will implement it,” said Assembly Housing and Homelessness Committee Chair Felix Rivera back in March. 

His new target for getting a permanent shelter for up to 150 people running is Dec. 31 – with a new caveat that it would likely be under a temporary emergency authorization, and not with the higher standards attached to permanent, licensed shelters. 

“There is realistically and feasibly no other way that a shelter would get up and running by the end of this year,” Rivera said in a committee meeting on Monday. “Considering some of these other processes – conditional use, rezoning – can take months and months and months, right?”

Why higher standards matter

A man in a checkered shirt looks through papers.
Anchorage Assembly member Felix Rivera attends a meeting at City Hall on Thursday. As chair of the Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee, Rivera is leading multiple efforts to develop community buy-in on projects to address homelessness. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

His comments come just six weeks after the Assembly began shutting down its winter emergency shelters, the biggest of which was the Sullivan Arena. The number of people sleeping outdoors ballooned. Local homelessness experts  estimate about 700 people in Anchorage are unsheltered. 

The use of the arena as a shelter was particularly controversial. Last October, the city reopened it as a mass shelter and also contracted for extra beds in hotels and existing shelters. It acted quickly with emergency powers. Unlike the pandemic years, these spaces were set up to protect the homeless from winter weather. 

Like before, the shelter operators didn’t need to meet licensing requirements adopted in 2021, and the properties didn’t have to comply with normal zoning and land-use rules. 

The Sullivan Arena had the highest capacity of any city shelter – and, by one expert’s reckoning, the entire country. And it was low-barrier, meaning being intoxicated or having a criminal record weren’t disqualifiers. It gave hundreds of people with nowhere else to go refuge from the cold – but it could also be chaotic and attract people who preyed on the most vulnerable

Rows of cots are organized on the floor of an arena.
Cots for men seeking shelter fill the floor of the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage on Nov. 22, 2022. The hockey arena served as a low-barrier emergency winter shelter from October 2022 through May 2023, and as an emergency shelter from 2020 to 2022 during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

The Sullivan’s neighbors attributed vandalism, littering, pedestrians in the road, trespassing, open drug use, assaults and even outdoor deaths to people drawn to the shelter. 

Advocates for a permanent, low-barrier shelter say those conditions and neighborhood impacts are not inherent to low-barrier shelters. Owen Hutchinson, a spokesperson for the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, said what spills out into a neighborhood is a reflection of what’s going on inside a shelter. 

“It’s really a mirror,” he told Rivera’s committee last week. “So if in a shelter, things are really chaotic and unsafe, things will be chaotic and unsafe for those individuals outside the building.”

For example, he said, if shelter users have secure storage for their belongings inside, “They’re not going out into the community and pushing shopping carts filled with stuff, you know, that who knows where it came from. Right? Because they have storage. Their needs are met, the safety is already occurring in the building.”

Rivera has been trying to get the public more involved to foster wider support for a permanent shelter concept that would be run with higher standards and policies for minimizing neighborhood impacts. 

Earlier this month, he hosted three town halls about what features a new shelter should have. They were held in a theater room at the Loussac Library, and there were lots of empty seats. 

East Anchorage resident Walter Lissner spoke at two of them

“Look how many people are here. I can count on two hands how many people were here last Saturday. It’s very discouraging,” he said. “There’s no reason there shouldn’t be at least 200 people here. No reason. Out of 300,000 residents?”

“So certainly I was hoping for more people to show up,” Rivera said in an interview this week. “But I’m also not surprised that more people didn’t show up. Because we weren’t talking about a specific location, right? You want to fill up an auditorium, you talk about a specific location, that’ll fill up an auditorium. But we’re not doing that. We’re starting from a very different perspective that doesn’t center around a specific location.” 

Does Anchorage care enough to do something different? 

Clashes between the Assembly and mayor’s office, and neighborhood pushback have stopped at least three options for new shelters since 2021: 

Across all three town hall events, only about two dozen people stepped up to the mic to speak. They shared grievances and fears about homeless people, judgments about substance use and idleness. 

Rivera said airing negativity is an important part of the process.

“Just as long as we don’t get stuck there,” he said. “We can’t get stuck there, we have to focus on solutions.”

Some speakers asked process questions and commented on other homelessness policies being developed for temporary sites where camping may be allowed. Few comments were focused on shelter concepts. 

“The phase of work we’re in is more conceptual, right?” Rivera said. “And sometimes it’s hard for people to really want to engage in that. They want to know the concrete details of, what’s going to be the neighborhood mitigation plan? What are we going to do to keep our children safe?”

Rivera said those details are critical and must be addressed, but that’ll happen later.

This week, Rivera’s committee finished a draft resolution with screening criteria for a new shelter. It includes things like square footage per user, current zoning, property availability, proximity to public transportation, distance from schools and playgrounds. He intends to introduce it next week, and hold an Assembly public hearing and vote on July 11. From there, Rivera plans to put together a list of specific locations for a shelter that meet the criteria, then do another round of town halls leading up to a final Assembly decision to pick a site in August at the earliest. 

Rivera said he isn’t discouraged by low turnout at the town halls, and noted that community councils are represented in his committee, plus a wider array of community members on two task forces working on recommendations for people with complex care needs and sanctioned camping. He thinks Anchorage at-large does care enough to support solutions to homelessness. 

“I have to believe that – even if it isn’t true, I feel like me as an elected representative has the moral imperative to work in this issue, despite all odds, despite any opposition to try to find solutions,” he said. “Because really, this is about what we want Anchorage to look like, how we want to treat our neighbors. And, frankly, for me, in the end, it comes down to what we can do to prevent some of the deaths that we see in the winter.” 

There are lots of ongoing opportunities for regular people to get involved. Public testimony is solicited during regular Assembly meetings and Housing and Homelessness Committee meetings. Written testimony is also welcomed.

Separate from the new permanent shelter, two other efforts are underway to add 250 permanent low-income housing units and portable shelters or campsites for up to 60 more people. Depending on what comes online in the next few months, Rivera is planning for 240 to 450 people needing emergency shelter this coming winter.

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

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