City warming centers may scale back soon as Anchorage cold snap ends

A man with a blue winter coat on vacuums the floor
Jason Smart vacuums the floor at a temporary warming center at the former Golden Lion Hotel in Anchorage on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Friday morning, Jason Smart volunteered to run a vacuum cleaner over a dingy, beat up orange carpet in what used to be a conference room in Anchorage’s former Golden Lion Hotel. The 58-year-old had his right pant leg rolled up, exposing a prosthetic foot. He lost his real foot in a motorcycle accident in 2010. It’s one of several serious health issues he’s managing. 

“I got a lot of medical issues going on and, you know, my caretaker and I kind of had a fall out and I don’t want to be out there in the cold,” Smart said.

Outside of this former Midtown hotel, temperatures are expected to bottom out at negative 18 degrees.

“So, I came here at 6 o’clock this morning, and just waiting to see if I can’t get a room,” Smart said.

Around the room, there’s an Uma Thurman movie on a TV, a woman is working on a jigsaw puzzle and two men are relaxing on cots.

This is one of three rooms the city and its winter shelter operator Henning Inc. hastily opened because of the prolonged, sub-zero temperatures that have nipped Anchorage for the past two weeks. Mayor Dave Bronson declared a public health and safety emergency on Jan. 26, and temporarily opened up warming spaces for 90 people. 

The Anchorage Assembly followed through on Sunday with up to $200,000 in emergency funding for this cold snap and may revisit the emergency at its Feb. 13 meeting.

There’s not much to do at these sites, but it is warm. Henning CEO Shawn Hays said it’s been orderly, though not ideal.  

“What’s really, ugh – I mean, not that we want, you know, an emergency declaration and warming centers, we wish everybody had shelter – but it’s also given us an opportunity to go in and offer services to people that come in for warming,” she said.

Some of Henning staff are working back-to-back shifts to keep the warming spaces open.

Smart said he is ready to get into the system that the city and various nonprofits use to connect needy people with shelter, housing and other supportive services. 

The mayor’s emergency proclamation suggested opening up more city buildings as warming spaces for the cold snap, but the city’s homelessness coordinator Alexis Johnson said there doesn’t seem to be a need for that after spreading the word through outreach workers, press releases and the 2-1-1 resource hotline

“We haven’t seen full utilization of the three sites,” she said. “We’ve never reached capacity where we say, ‘Hey, you can’t be here anymore. We’re at 30.’ And so, there’s really no need for additional sites. We’re actually talking about winding down some of the sites because the weather is improving.”

The sub-zero temperatures are forecast to let up this weekend.

A man in a dark hoodie at a shelter
Torrance Walker hangs out at Graceful Touch Transitional Services in Anchorage on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. Walker said he is grateful the nonprofit lets him warm up there during the day. (Matt Faubion/Alaska public Media)

A lot of people are still living outdoors. Johnson said oftentimes, people hunker down when it’s extra cold. 

It looked that way on Thursday at an unofficial campground in Mountain View. A lot of tents and RVs, not much activity. Doors cracked open occasionally to let dogs out to relieve themselves. 

James Ollice is living nearby. He said he didn’t know about the warming centers, but he’s OK in his tent with a portable heater.

“Got a tarp over it. Got heat. Nah, it ain’t too bad in there, really,” he said. “It’s actually warm in there.”

By “warm” he means 40 or 50 degrees. Still cold, he said, but better than outside. 

If you’d like to help out, Henning said it’s looking for donations of cold-weather gear.

A woman in a pink coat leaves a box of snacks at a homeless camp
Nevaeh Brown leaves an assortment of snacks for people living in cars and tents in Anchorage’s Mountain View neighborhood on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)
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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