Anchorage Assembly directs $7.6 million toward homelessness relief ahead of winter
By Emily Goodykoontz
The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday approved a $4.2 million funding package to speed the city’s response to a homelessness crisis before winter arrives, plus another $3.4 million to turn a downtown hotel into permanent housing.
Assembly members also voted to override a veto from Mayor Dave Bronson and spend $2.8 million to continue sheltering more than 220 homeless residents in rooms at the Aviator Hotel through September.
The slew of legislation on the city’s homelessness response comes as the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates that more than 350 residents are now living unsheltered in the city.
The Bronson administration closed a mass care homeless shelter at Sullivan Arena at the end of June, leaving almost no available shelter space in Anchorage. Simultaneously, the administration directed and bused unhoused people from illegal camps and Sullivan Arena to live unsheltered at Centennial Campground in East Anchorage.
Currently, shelters and housing programs in Anchorage are largely full, with waitlists — and for the first time in years, there is no walk-in, low-barrier shelter available.
In response, three Assembly members proposed spending $7.6 million to address an “immediate humanitarian crisis” for unsheltered people in Anchorage.
With winter weather on the way, the administration, Assembly members and homeless service providers all agree the city needs more housing and emergency shelter as quickly as possible but are clashing over how to proceed.
Homelessness initiatives passed
The Assembly on Tuesday approved several pieces of a proposal from members Felix Rivera, Kameron Perez-Verdia and Daniel Volland, who say they are aiming to alleviate unsheltered homelessness and prepare for winter.
A total of $4.2 million in alcohol tax funds will go toward rental unit rehabilitation, emergency shelter and increasing street outreach:
• $500,000 to United Way’s Landlord Housing Partnership, to rehabilitate 60 rental units for housing people experiencing homelessness.
• $1.2 million to the Anchorage Health Department, via a competitive bidding process, for adult emergency sheltering and cold weather response through the end of 2022. It includes a stipulation that no funds may be used for the planned East Anchorage navigation center and shelter at Tudor and Elmore roads. Before receiving the funds, the health department must develop and write an emergency shelter plan for the city and present it at the August Assembly committee meeting on housing and homelessness.
• $433,000 as a grant to Catholic Social Services for its Brother Francis Shelter to provide adult emergency shelter services. Rivera said the shelter is willing to increase its capacity from 75 to 120.
• $350,000 in a grant to Christian Health Associates to stand up family emergency shelter.
• $1.7 million as a grant to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness to expand street outreach efforts, in light of the increase in unsheltered homelessness, as well as targeted outreach to families experiencing homelessness. The money will also fund transportation costs to help people access services, appointments and housing.
Members passed the spending in a 9-2 vote. Members Jamie Allard and Randy Sulte voted against it. The mayor and his staff did not speak in support of or in opposition to the funding on Tuesday night.
Assembly member Kevin Cross said he is usually skeptical of government spending, but after researching the proposal, he supports it.
“The United Way program, and what we see here, is for individuals who are putting forth a good faith effort to improve their situation and turn themselves around,” he said.
In an 8-3 vote, members also approved a resolution to spend $3.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds as a grant to nonprofit group First Presbyterian Anchorage in order to secure the purchase of the GuestHouse Inn. Members Allard, Sulte and Cross voted against it.
(Assembly member Meg Zaletel, who is also the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, recused herself from voting on both resolutions.)
The GuestHouse Inn is currently being used by the city as a transitional housing complex, and is slated to become 130 workforce and permanent supportive housing units after the sale to First Presbyterian closes in August.
“We will be helping to provide dignified, stable housing to people who are workforce ready,” said the Rev. Matt Schultz of the First Presbyterian Church.
Uncertainty over funding had put the project at risk, after delay from the city in securing funds that Assembly members and others involved in the deal had expected.
The GuestHouse was initially part of a previously negotiated and agreed upon plan to address homelessness between the Assembly and Bronson administration. That nearly year-long negotiation broke down last month.
Assembly members have said the administration and Anchorage Health Department delayed beginning a lengthy process to acquire the expected federal HUD grant funds for the hotel purchase. That left the city without the funds needed to meet the August closing deadline, putting the sale at risk — and putting the 132 people who are currently living there in peril of losing their shelter, they said.
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, on Tuesday, asked Bronson officials whether or not the administration still supports the GuestHouse purchase.
Alexis Johnson, Bronson’s chief of staff, said the administration received new information on Tuesday from the Anchorage Community Development Authority.
“We are discussing some options as far as supporting the GuestHouse purchase via that,” Johnson said.
On Monday, the Anchorage Homelessness Leadership Council sent the Assembly and mayor a letter in support of the Assembly’s funding package for the homelessness initiatives. The letter was signed by leaders from multiple organizations and businesses, including Doyon Ltd.; Weidner Apartment Homes; Rasmuson Foundation; ConocoPhillips; Wells Fargo; and Cook Inlet Housing Authority.
Several have donated large sums to support projects in the city’s negotiated homelessness plans. The council is a group of business and community leaders who guide the implementation of Anchored Home, the city’s community plan “to make homelessness rare, brief, and one-time.”
The group urged Assembly members to pass the measures to “swiftly address the acute needs of the startling and heartbreakingly high numbers of unsheltered people following the closure of the Sullivan Arena and most of the non-congregate shelter locations.”
A fifth piece of the three Assembly members’ homelessness proposal calls for $12.6 million to help facilitate the purchase of a hotel that would be converted into 120 units of permanent supportive housing. That item has not yet been introduced for consideration.
Bronson veto override
While Bronson and the Assembly largely agree that the city should continue to pay for sheltering homeless residents at the Aviator Hotel, they’ve disagreed over what funds the city should spend.
Last week, Bronson issued a veto of the $2.8 million in general city funds because his administration believes that the spending is not eligible for FEMA reimbursement without a local or state COVID-19 health mandate. Bronson said the city should instead spend funds from the alcohol tax.
Several Assembly members say that the city should at least attempt to get federal reimbursement for the Aviator as a COVID-19 mass care response for the homeless and instead spend the alcohol tax money on other homelessness initiatives and efforts.
On Tuesday in a 9-3 vote, Assembly members overrode Bronson’s veto, with members Allard, Sulte and Cross voting against the override.
Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson said that the Assembly’s legal counsel researched the matter and concluded in a memo that the mayor’s legal argument is not legitimate.
“Overriding this veto is the fiscally responsible thing to do,” she said.
But Bronson’s recently appointed municipal attorney, Mario Bird, disagreed.
“From a legal standpoint, what we’ve been told by the state is: no local emergency — we’re not going to get reimbursed,” Bird said.
Allard said that the city would waste time, money and resources seeking FEMA reimbursement.
Zaletel said the nationwide COVID-19 public health emergency was continued on July 15, and that she believes two health department directives still allow for the operation of non-congregate and congregate mass care.
“Frankly, I think it doesn’t hurt to try,” she said.
The city stood up its mass care shelters in hotels and Sullivan Arena when the pandemic began in 2020 and capacity at privately run shelters was drastically reduced due to COVID-19 health measures.
“That reduced bed capacity continues to this day,” Dunbar said.
Camping limit waiver at Centennial rejected
The Assembly, in a 9-3 vote on Tuesday, rejected a proposal from the Bronson administration to change city code to allow the Parks and Recreation director to waive permit restrictions at city-owned campsites. Members Allard, Sulte and Cross voted in favor of the ordinance.
While a city law places a 14-day time limit on camping in Anchorage campgrounds, more than four weeks have passed since the city repurposed Centennial Campground. The unsheltered people now living there have far exceeded the time limit.
Bronson officials and Assembly members have said that they believe the city cannot legally move people out of the campground because a federal court holds that homeless encampments can’t be cleared when alternative shelter is not available.
Widespread community outcry quickly erupted following the city’s move to direct and bus homeless people to Centennial Campground. Assembly members, community leaders, homeless advocates and service providers have all raised serious concerns over conditions and safety at the campground. Many have lambasted the Bronson administration for closing the Sullivan without an alternative shelter plan in place.
The administration has said it began offering free, legal camping with access to bathrooms, water and showers, to homeless residents in response to high fire danger. City manager Amy Demboski reiterated that statement on Tuesday night and said a fire in a wooded East Anchorage area triggered the decision.
“We have to remember, 75% of the people in this campground came from other illegal camping locations. They did not come from the Sullivan Arena,” Demboski said.
Dunbar, who represents East Anchorage, where the campground is located, said approval of the code change would be a “tacit endorsement” of the mayor’s actions.
He also said that some people who had been staying at the Sullivan lost their spots when it stopped intake of clients after June 1, ahead of the shelter’s June 30 closure. They illegally camped and then moved to Centennial, Dunbar said.
“We’ve seen this chaotic process that ended with this tragedy,” Dunbar said. “This humanitarian crisis that’s happening now in Centennial Park is a complete failure of leadership by this mayor and this mayor alone, acting unilaterally.”
Last week, a police shooting in the campground left one officer and another man, who was later charged with attempted murder, seriously injured. The exchange of gunfire erupted in the midst of campsites — some with families and children camping — and occurred as campers slept in nearby tents, cooked dinner and milled about the campground.
Since the city repurposed the campground, a woman at the campground died of an overdose, a fight resulted in multiple assaults on police officers, and five bears have been killed by authorities after tearing into tents, some with campers inside.
The administration is adamant that Centennial Campground is not part of the city’s homelessness response and has not provided homeless services or food to campers.
The mayor’s office announced last week that the Salvation Army was stepping in to help. The charity organization is now coordinating the hodgepodge of community efforts that have attempted to fill in the gaps in services at the campground. It is managing food delivery, donations and attempting to coordinate on-site homeless outreach.
The day after the shooting, the Salvation Army moved all families with children out of the park and into family shelters. It has so far relocated 34 people from Centennial, according to a situation report it released Monday. Its latest census count at Centennial is 143 people, though the numbers change frequently as people come and go.
“Safety and protection for everyone who lives in Anchorage is a priority no matter where they are, which includes safe sheltering and for those who choose to camp outside,” Bronson said in his opening comments on Tuesday. “While we are working every angle to place people in shelter, treatment services, and in permanent housing, we will still continue to make sure that at Centennial, there is access to water showers, restrooms and Wi-Fi as well as additional resources across the campground.”