The incoming administration of Mayor-elect Dave Bronson on Tuesday unveiled an ambitious plan to construct a large-scale homeless shelter and “navigation center” in East Anchorage near the old police headquarters building.
The proposed shelter represents a potential sea change in the city’s role in addressing homelessness, one of Anchorage’s most urgent and chronic problems.
“Fundamentally, we believe that providing shelter to the unhoused is a necessary first step,” John Morris, the Bronson administration’s homeless coordinator and a local anesthesiologist, told Anchorage Assembly members Tuesday. “It’s the humane thing to do. It is the practical thing to do. And it’s the legal thing to do.”
The plan got a warm reception from some Assembly members in a presentation Tuesday while others expressed concerns it would be too large, too expensive and in the wrong spot.
Bronson takes office July 1.
The city has housed around 400-500 people in a mass shelter run by Bean’s Cafe at Sullivan Arena since the beginning of the pandemic. The arena shelter has to be decommissioned by the beginning of September, with winter following on its heels. That means the city needs to find a way to house hundreds of people with a short lead-time of a few months.
Acting mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson last month announced a plan to decommission the Sullivan Arena shelter and create a smaller shelter in Midtown along with other options for the city’s homeless population. Bronson’s announcement marks a potential shift away from that plan.
Morris outlined the details of the navigation center in a meeting in Anchorage Assembly chambers Tuesday:
An “intentionally designed, purpose built and strategically located” navigation center would be constructed with semi-permanent domed tents called Sprung Structures and located on a lot immediately east of the old Anchorage Police Department headquarters at East Tudor and Elmore roads. The spot currently houses an APD parking lot filled with hundreds of impounded vehicles.
About 400 people would be able to shelter at the site initially, said Morris — about the same number as have been staying at Sullivan Arena. The shelter would be designed to accommodate as many as 900 people.
Unlike the arena shelter, the new facility could be split into multiple separate structures, like townhouses sharing a roof, Morris said. Those could serve as separate shelters and office spaces, and the walls would be constructed from soundproof material, he said.
“Functionally and practically, we can divide this up into small shelters, trying to gain those things that we know are advantages,” Morris said. “If one person is having a bad night, somewhere between 30 to 50 people are going to lose sleep, not 200.”
He said the emergency shelter at Sullivan Arena — thought to be the largest mass shelter in the country — proved to be a successful experiment, despite many challenges.
“We’ve seen what happens when the municipality steps in and it can do it,” he said.
Morris said he plans to apply the lessons learned at the Sullivan to the navigation center, including keeping it open 24/7 and bringing direct services to local homeless shelters.
Those services would include a medical facility, rehabilitation services and job services among others, Bronson said. Visitors to the center would also get help securing permanent housing. The idea is to make homelessness a brief experience, Morris said.
Bronson said that his team hopes to break ground this summer. Morris said the project could be completed by the end of September if it begins July 1.
The proposed shelter would be “low barrier,” meaning that people wouldn’t have to prove they are sober to stay the night, and they could bring “partners, pets and possessions,” the plan says.
Locating the shelter on the APD property would provide a “persistent adjacent police presence” and would put a major hospital, the Alaska Native Medical Center, within walking distance. The site is also already zoned for a potential shelter, easily fenced and located “away from residences and businesses,” according to the administration’s plan.
The city put a price tag of “under $15 million” on the project. Details about the exact cost of constructing and operating the shelter — and where the money would come from — haven’t been revealed.
Morris said the building itself would cost about $5 million and that the rest is the cost of adding beds, utilities, fencing and other components.
“The cost will go up the faster we have to build it,” he said.
The police department did not answer questions about whether it had been consulted about the plan. In a statement, the department said it “has been and continues to be in discussions” about the preliminary plan site.
The Elmore-Tudor property houses dispatch, records, evidence and special operations units within the police department and is undergoing a “massive renovation,” the statement said.
“The parking lot mentioned in the plan currently holds approximately 500 vehicles considered evidence in ongoing investigations.”
The navigation center doesn’t represent the entirety of Bronson’s plan to tackle homelessness — rather, it’s an initial phase, he emphasized at the presentation. Other aspects of the plan, such as the long-term housing promised, haven’t been detailed yet.
The administration looked at examples of navigation centers in Houston, Reno, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City to develop the plan, Morris said.
Assembly members and homeless service providers expressed support for the plan, but also reservations. Several said it seemed to diverge widely from Bronson’s rhetoric during his campaign, in which he called homeless people “vagrants” and suggested jailing people as a viable solution.
“The Assembly wants to do something about this, the administration wants to do something about this and the public does. We have a changing point,” said Lisa Aquino, the executive director of Catholic Social Services. “That doesn’t mean I agree with every aspect of the plan yet.”
During his campaign, Bronson heavily criticized a plan proposed last summer by former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz that allocated federal CARES Act funds to purchase three buildings for homeless and treatment services — the former Alaska Club on East Tudor Road in Midtown, Bean’s Cafe soup kitchen and America’s Best Value Inn & Suites.
That plan elicited outcry from residents concerned about the impact to their neighborhoods, and some opponents said that the use of federal relief funds was illegal and inappropriate.
The city recently returned to the idea of purchasing the former Alaska Club on Tudor Road when Quinn-Davidson last month announced, as part of her plan to stand down the Sullivan, that the city has entered into a contract to purchase the building for $5.436 million. It would become a 125-bed congregate emergency shelter and resource hub — if Bronson follows through with the purchase after taking office July 1.
As part of Berkowitz’s plan, the Assembly also approved the purchase of the Best Western Golden Lion Inn with funds from the sale of Municipal Light & Power. That building is set to become a treatment center.
Bronson said that he doesn’t yet know where exactly the funds would come from for the proposed navigation center and shelter and that his administration must work with the Assembly to find the money.
“They control the money, they budget the money. The executive spends the money,” Bronson said during a press briefing after the meeting. “And so we’re looking forward to an opportunity to work with them to actually find the money.”
“I think the Assembly and certainly Dr. Morris and I are on the page that we are changing. This is a sea change,” Bronson said. “We can’t let this go on anymore. Because we have to pay — we have to pay for our homeless problem, the overall homeless problem, as well as the visible homeless problem.”
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who ran against Bronson in the mayoral election, said he was surprised by Bronson’s plan.
“I would say represents almost a 180-degree change from the rhetoric they used on the campaign,” Dunbar said. “Now, they are comfortable using CARES Act money where previously, they said it was a misappropriation. Now they are comfortable using alcohol tax money, when previously they said it was a cash grab. The attacks … they made on the Berkowitz administration, now, they are adopting a significant part of that plan.”
Dunbar, who represents East Anchorage, the area where the facility would be built, expressed skepticism, calling the project “far too large, far too expensive and far too rushed.”
“It’s better than any one I’ve seen, with an actual plan and rules and safety and location and cost figures, right?” said Jamie Allard, who represents Eagle River on the Assembly and who supported Bronson’s campaign. “I think we’re on the right track.”
Dunbar and other Assembly members questioned Morris about funding sources and the…