Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration expects to continue using Centennial Park Campground as a sanctioned site for Anchorage’s homeless residents through September or early October, and a project to put up an East Anchorage shelter will likely not be complete until the end of January, officials said Wednesday.
With the mass care shelter at Sullivan Arena now closed, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates 350 or more people are living unsheltered in the city. Another 220 houseless people are living at the Aviator Hotel, and will soon need housing or other sheltering options. Meanwhile, shelters and housing programs in Anchorage are largely full, with waitlists.
With colder weather just a month or two away, the administration, Assembly members and homeless service providers all say they are focusing efforts on standing up more housing and emergency shelter as quickly as possible.
But those efforts have often been separate and at odds since a facilitated negotiation process between the Assembly and administration on the city’s homelessness plans broke down last month — and after the Bronson administration abruptly repurposed Centennial Campground for unsheltered people as it closed the Sullivan shelter at the end of June.
The move drew outcry from many Assembly members, some state legislators, homeless advocates and community groups, which have all raised serious concerns over conditions and safety at the campground. Some have called it a humanitarian crisis and have lambasted the Bronson administration for closing the Sullivan without an alternative shelter plan in place and called on it for plans moving forward.
[Another bear killed at East Anchorage city campground repurposed for homeless residents]
Three Assembly members have since proposed their own plan to shelter or house people at Centennial and others living unsheltered before winter hits.
At an Assembly Committee on Housing and Homelessness meeting Wednesday morning, members questioned administration officials about plans for Centennial, progress on the East Anchorage shelter and navigation center project, and their plans for emergency winter shelter.
Bronson vetoes funding for Aviator Hotel rooms
Bronson, on Tuesday, vetoed an Assembly measure that allocated $2.8 million to continue sheltering more than 220 homeless individuals in the Aviator Hotel through Sept. 30, funding that would have also increased the number rooms available for the homeless.
Bronson had initially proposed the same amount in funding for continued sheltering at the Aviator, using alcohol tax money as part of the city’s homelessness response. The Assembly last week approved the proposed funding, but changed the source of the money. In its resolution, the Assembly directed the administration to seek federal reimbursement for the costs through FEMA, citing a continuing COVID-19 emergency.
In the mayor’s veto, the administration said that the city is disqualified from FEMA reimbursement for the costs because there is no state or local COVID-19 health emergency.
“My veto is strictly because of where we are appropriating those funds from. We can not spend money in the name of COVID-19 response and then try to get FEMA reimbursement if there is no state or local public health emergency,” Bronson said in a prepared statement.
Assembly member Felix Rivera, who chairs the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness, said he is looking into whether or not the mayor is correct.
“I am going to dig into those details. If it proves to be untrue … then I will push that we override that veto,” Rivera said. If the administration is right, it should again propose funding for the Aviator at the Assembly meeting next week, he said.
Regardless of the final funding source, the many people now staying at the Aviator will need housing or other shelter options come the end of September.
East Anchorage navigation center and shelter
The city needs three key permits to construct and bring online the 150-person shelter: a permit to build in a wetlands area, a conditional use permit and a fill and grade permit, said Saxton Shearer, the project manager and the city’s director of maintenance and operations.
It can’t break ground until it gets the wetlands permit approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, he said. The application is in, and the city should be able to break ground Aug. 20, he said.
[Salvation Army will manage Centennial Campground operations for Anchorage homeless residents]
Shearer said the city aims to have it ready for partial occupancy around Thanksgiving if it gets half the building substantially complete.
To finish it, “right now we’re looking at probably end of January, with a bow tie,” he said.
The tensioned fabric structure, which will be about 27,000 square feet, has already been ordered from Sprung Structures and should arrive around Sept. 20, he said. It will have additional structural beams to ensure its snow load capability and better seismic stability.
With such a need for shelter in Anchorage, and in order to avoid higher costs of cold weather construction, the city is pushing to work as fast as possible, he said.
When the Assembly approved $6.2 million in funding for the navigation center, it made the money contingent on the administration’s commitment to make a “good faith effort” to convert the city-owned Golden Lion into a substance misuse treatment center.
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar pressed Bronson officials with questions about its plans for the building and whether it would make that effort, expressing frustration.
[‘Nothing but rain’: Homeless residents try to cope with a soggy mess at Centennial Park Campground]
Alexis Johnson, the mayor’s chief of staff, said the administration is prioritizing helping the Salvation Army bring its 68-bed substance misuse treatment facility back online after it was damaged in the 2018 earthquake.
“If it does seem like a feasible option — that’s something that was being discussed — I don’t see a reason why it wouldn’t be explored,” she said of the Golden Lion.
Centennial to remain sanctioned camping through September
A city law places a 14-day time limit on camping in Anchorage campgrounds, but at 3 1/2 weeks into the city’s repurposing of the campground, the time limit has long passed for the unsheltered people living there.
Johnson said the administration believes that it cannot force homeless people who are living at Centennial to leave the campground until there is adequate shelter capacity in the city, citing a federal court ruling that homeless encampments can’t be cleared when alternative shelter is not available.
“Our priority remains housing people and sheltering people and trying to get people to adequate shelter options,” she said.
The administration is “exploring winter sheltering options” in order to move people from the camp, she said.
“I would say at the end of September, early October,” Johnson said, when questioned for a timeframe by Assembly member Dunbar.
“We do not have plans to keep people at Centennial or to allow people to camp through winter,” she said.
The city Parks and Recreation Department’s appointed director, Mike Braniff, said the census at the campground is about 180, but the estimate is based off of the number of meals Bean’s Cafe has been handing out there. The city has not yet been able to take an accurate count, he said.
With open access through trails, people often come and go from the campground. Homeless advocates and volunteers on the ground have estimated that more than 200 people are staying there. In early July, Braniff provided the Daily News an estimate of 210 people who had stayed there on one night.
The city directed and bused people to the campground from Sullivan Arena at the end of June.
In total, 58 of the people at Centennial came from the Sullivan shelter, Braniff said. The city transported 41 people there, and the rest made their way there on their own, he said. Others came there from illegal camps, he said. The campground also includes people who had been living in their vehicles, and a few houseless people who had been staying there previous to the city’s repurposing.
The city has not provided services for the unsheltered people at the campground, such as food, and has provided few resources. That left homeless service providers, volunteers and community groups scrambling to meet critical needs of homeless people at the camp.
The Bronson administration on Wednesday continued to dispute that Centennial Park Campground is part of the city’s homelessness response — eliciting scorn from an East Anchorage Assembly member.
“Why are you so comfortable telling the people of Anchorage something that is clearly a lie? Why do you feel the need to do this?” Dunbar said.
“I don’t believe it’s a lie. We have just waived the fee at the campground,” Johnson said.
Since moving people to the site from Sullivan Arena, the city has provided unsheltered campers with bear-safe food storage containers. On Tuesday it provided another 130 storage containers and is working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to make campers as “bear safe as possible,” Braniff said.
Five bears have now been killed after entering tents at the campground — the fifth killed by state wildlife troopers on Wednesday morning.
Bears at Centennial have torn into some tents with people inside.
Parks and Rec staff make rounds every hour to clean up food-related trash, check how campers are storing food and explain bear-safe practices, he said.
[Fight at campground repurposed for homeless ends in assault on officers, police say]
On Tuesday, the mayor’s office announced that the Salvation Army would begin on-site management of client care at Centennial.
Johnson told committee members that the Salvation Army approached the city and asked to help organize the patchwork of services that community organizations and volunteers quickly stood up. It will help organize food delivery and donations, manage other donations such as clothing and camping gear and coordinate to bring on-site case management there.
Assembly proposal and a need for winter shelter
Assembly members Rivera, Kameron Perez-Verdia and Daniel Volland are attempting to take action on their own to alleviate unsheltered homelessness and prepare for winter.
Their funding proposal has five parts:
• $500,000 to remodel 60 rental units.
• $2 million to keep emergency shelters open through the end of the year.
• $1.5 million to pay for outreach services to connect people living in camps and shelters with resources.
• $3.4 million to fund the purchase of the GuestHouse Inn, ensuring that the 130 units currently being used as transitional housing become permanent supportive housing units.
• $12.6 million to help facilitate the purchase of a hotel that will be converted into 120 units of permanent supportive housing.
The Assembly is scheduled to consider all but the hotel purchase at its meeting next Tuesday.
Meg Zaletel, Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness executive director, spoke in favor of some pieces of the funding package and urged the city to draft an emergency sheltering plan. It’s something the city does not have and that has “hindered us,” she said. (Zaletel, in a separate role, is also a Midtown Assembly member.)
“The current stressors on our system and the number of unsheltered folks really is the reason to buckle down and get this emergency sheltering plan in place,” she said.
More housing units and increased street outreach are also desperately needed, she said.
With the Sullivan closed, the main contact point for people seeking homeless services is gone. Mail delivery to houseless people that once went to the Sullivan is now held at the Fairview post office, and is difficult to to get to unsheltered people.
Because the homeless response system is full and there is no where for anyone to go, outreach is now on the front lines of the response, she said.
Providers now have to figure out how to do things on the streets and in encampments that typically would have been done through an assigned case manager at a shelter, such as helping people get necessary documentation, identification cards and much more.
“That means layering on transportation. How do you get someone documents that they need in order to secure a lease? If we can’t transport them anywhere? How do we get people to see units? How do we do the things that we have often relied on shelters and shelter case management to do directly from the streets?” Zaletel said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism