Update 1:05 p.m. Tuesday:
In a special meeting today, the Anchorage Assembly approved raising the capacity at its walk-in emergency cold weather shelter to 200 beds.
Alexis Johnson, the city’s homelessness coordinator, said the city is working with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness to get the city’s most vulnerable people into the 50 new spots.
Felix Rivera, chair of the Assembly Housing and Homelessness Committee, said he expects to discuss options for opening one or more warming spaces in his committee on Wednesday.
Anchorage’s emergency winter shelter system has reached capacity, and after two major snowstorms and a spate of outdoor deaths, the Anchorage Assembly will consider adding 50 beds to the city’s walk-in shelter in a special meeting Tuesday.
That would still leave hundreds of people experiencing homelessness on a waitlist for winter shelter.
The city’s system has beds for 524 adults, plus 25 beds for youths and young adults, and rooms for eight families with children or expecting mothers. Nonprofits also independently run year-round shelters with several hundred beds.
The city’s homelessness coordinator, Alexis Johnson, said Friday the city was exploring expanding its capacity.
“So we are in conversations right now to look at additional facilities, whether that be warming or additional cold weather emergency shelter,” Johnson said. “And that’s something we need to prioritize, especially with this type of weather outside.”
The city was in talks with a potential warming center provider, Johnson said.
In recent winters, the city stood up warming centers in and around the Sullivan Arena, which served as a mass shelter the past three winters. The warming areas were not intended for overnight stays and served as overflow waiting rooms for actual shelter beds.
The city closed the Sullivan Arena shelter this summer.
Additional shelter options at this point are limited, Johnson said.
“We don’t have any vacant municipal buildings that we would be able to turn on, nor do I think that we have additional operators to run a shelter facility of that size,” she said.
The Assembly’s lead on homelessness issues, Felix Rivera, said he and his colleagues are generally in support of an expansion.
In an emailed statement to media on Friday, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness called on the city to open warming centers and to do a better job vetting those on the shelter waitlist, to prioritize bed space for the most vulnerable.
The coalition also suggested that those steps, plus better communication with unhoused communities before their campsites were cleared by the city, might have prevented some recent outdoor deaths.
“If these steps had been taken, it is very likely that these neighbors would have been better cared for by our community,” the coalition said. “The winter has just started. It is not too late to make some course corrections.”
According to the Anchorage Daily News, at least four people thought to be living outdoors have died outside since recent storms covered the city in about two feet of snow.
As for the shelter waitlist, for the first time this year, the city and a nonprofit contractor running the main winter shelters are using a phone-in reservation system.
And Rivera, the Assembly member, said relying primarily on phones doesn’t work for everyone experiencing homelessness.
“Especially folks who have a little bit more vulnerability, who maybe don’t have phones, who don’t know how to access these things to get on the list,” Rivera said. “For me, that’s a sort of real equity issue.”