Hundreds of people are moving from Anchorage homeless camps into hotel rooms

a person holds their arms out as a man runs a security wand
Nemo Asaivao runs a security wand around an Alex Hotel resident in Anchorage on Oct. 20, 2023. Residents of the 50 rooms reserved in the hotel as part of the city’s emergency cold weather shelter plan must make regular check-ins. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

Angie Carter found out on Tuesday morning that she could get a room in one of the two Anchorage hotels the city reserved space in as part of its emergency cold weather shelter plan. 

“I wasn’t gonna be in the cold,” the 36-year-old said, as shelter workers at the Alex Hotel screened bags for drugs and weapons that aren’t allowed inside as part of the intake process.

Carter sounded exhausted. She said she’s been homeless for two years. Most recently, she was living in “Tent City,” the unofficial campground along Third Avenue. Because of shootings and deaths, she said she never felt safe there. 

“It was the worst place you could ever live,” she said. 

Getting a hotel room was a relief. 

“A step closer to being housed,” she said. 

Carter is one of hundreds of people moving from encampments into hotel rooms in Anchorage this week as the winter shelter season begins. Fifty rooms are set aside as at this hotel in Spenard. Another 137 rooms are reserved at the Aviator Hotel downtown. In about two weeks, the city plans to open up another 150 beds at a city building being converted into a temporary shelter in the former Solid Waste Services administration building in the Midtown area.  

A lot of people who’ve been living outside for months, like Carter, say they’re eager to get into the no-frills hotel rooms. But these rooms are expected to fill within days, and there are already hundreds more people on the waitlist than there will be beds. 

A flyer at an unofficial campground says "Shelter is opening soon"
A flyer at an unofficial campground along Third Avenue in Anchorage, pictured here on Oct. 18, 2023, steers homeless campers to a registration process for emergency cold weather shelter. The number of tents at the encampment has thinned as shelters opened, and officials think some of of the remaining tents are no longer occupied. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

Breanna Witzke and her roommate moved into the Alex Hotel the night before Carter. Witzke had been living out of a van for part of the summer, which was repeatedly broken into. 

“Being able to know that my stuff is safe, knowing that I’m safe,” she said. “That puts a sense of comfort you can’t touch.”

The hotel room she shares with a roommate is pretty basic. There’s a pair of double beds, a bathroom, a heater, dresser, microwave and TV. Some of their belongings are stacked in a corner. Witzke said just washing her face that morning in a clean sink of her own, without needing to watch her back, gave her a sense of normalcy she hadn’t had for months. 

Witzke is already looking ahead. She said she’s been driving a cab and catching up on unpaid bills. She and her roommate plan to save up, and will work with a housing coach to move on. 

That’s generally how the homelessness system is supposed to work. 

“Get people shelter, warm, fed,” said Rob Seay, a community liaison with Henning Inc., the business contracted to run winter shelter services in Anchorage, including the hotels. “We know that if we take care of those elements, the next – after that is getting them a job. Getting them a job and then finding them a leasable option.”

Seay said Henning is in better shape to run the shelters this winter, with lots of experienced, returning staff. With more lead time this year, he said the staff also had better onboarding and training. 

Henning and other independent shelter operators in Anchorage are likely to have their hands full this winter. The city’s homelessness coordinator Alexis Johnson said that as of Wednesday morning, 763 people were seeking winter shelter. That’s hundreds more than the city planned for all summer. 

Just six days earlier, Johnson thought there’d be excess capacity. The new numbers mean there could be 400 people or more left out in the cold. 

It’s unclear why the need appears so much higher than previously estimated. Johnson and Rivera’s committee planned off of last winter’s shelter numbers, less hundreds of new affordable housing units that came online this summer at converted hotels. 

“The question is, if we need almost double the shelter that we planned for, you know, what’s the next thing?” Johnson said Wednesday during the Anchorage Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee. “And I don’t think we’ve had enough time based on the list we received this morning to really identify if there’s a need for an additional location.”

She did say she wants to keep the Midtown shelter relatively small with its 150-person capacity. 

Committee chair Felix Rivera was reluctant to accept that the need was so high. He said a lot of unknowns still need to settle out. 

“I think as we go through the process in the next couple of weeks, I think we’ll get a better sense of how many more – or, if any – additional shelter beds we need,” he said. “So I don’t think we’re necessarily ready to make any official pronouncements that we need to double the number of shelter beds.”

Assembly member Anna Brawley also said she was OK with a wait-and-see approach. She wondered if a surge of evictions may have been a factor. 

Johnson told the committee that the latest waitlist numbers may significantly undercount the demand for winter shelter. She said she knows a lot of people camping at the city’s snow dump in Mountain View are not on the current waitlist. But she expects that to change next month, when city officials plan to relocate those campers.

“It would be naive of us to think that every person who’s living unsheltered is on this list, waiting to go into shelter,” Johnson said. 

Anchorage Parks and Recreation Director Mike Braniff told the committee that earlier plans to clear out the camps along Third Avenue are still expected to proceed, so long as shelter spaces are available. Staff will also clear camps in other parts of town throughout the month if there’s room in shelters.

But his department’s approach at the Mountain View snow dump, where there are about 80 tents, will be different. When snow starts falling, the city is concerned about campers’ safety around heavy equipment traffic. 

“What we plan to do is to ask these campers to move across the street to Davis Park, where they’re welcome to camp for this winter,” Braniff said.  

He said this is the first time the city’s trying this approach. He said his department will give campers three weeks’ notice, and even help campers make the move.  

Not all people who are staying outside want to go into shelters. Rules around substance use, pets and limits on how much stuff can be brought in can all be barriers. 

At the Alex Hotel, Witzke said that, for her, the tradeoffs are worth the security. She said it feels like the staff has the right demeanor, too. 

a man walks between two hotel buildings
Nemo Asaivao walks a lap around a building at the Alex Hotel in Anchorage on Oct. 20, 2023. Asaivao works as a monitor for Henning Inc., a business operating emergency cold weather shelters in the city, which includes 50 rooms here. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

“Assertive, yes, but friendly,” she said. “Not, ‘OK, well you guys are just all messed-up heads,’ and tromp all over you. I’m not getting that vibe. And that’s huge.” 

Which means for now, this hotel room is home. 

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.

Previous articleState of Art: Anchorage Opera sets classic comedy in the 1980s
Next articleAlaska’s 2 U.S. senators address AFN convention from afar