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For the first time in 3 years, Anchorage will operate a low-barrier shelter this summer – at least for now

June 2 — For the first time since 2021, Anchorage enters the peak summer months with the opening of a city-run low-barrier homeless shelter.

Although Anchorage’s new mayor says maintaining the shelter is a priority, its future after the end of June remains uncertain due to a planned change in operator and unresolved funding.

This summer, about 200 of Anchorage’s most vulnerable people are staying at the mass shelter on East 56th Avenue, just off Old Seward Highway. The shelter is located inside what was once the city’s solid waste department administration building. This cavernous space once housed garbage trucks, but now houses unhoused people, who live in tightly packed cots and are allowed two bins full of belongings.

The situation offers more shelter than the last two summers. In 2022, unhoused people were invited to camp at a municipal campground in East Anchorage when the Sullivan Arena shelter closed for the summer. Last summer, the city offered no shelter. In its absence, large camps grew up on Third Avenue and Ingra Street, near downtown, and at Cuddy Park in Midtown Anchorage. With more people living outdoors, outdoor deaths have increased.

The numbers aren’t exact, but city officials said they estimate more than 500 people will be living outdoors around Anchorage this summer.

The cold weather shelter was scheduled to close due to lack of funding on June 1, but an Assembly appropriation of about $500,000 allowed it to continue operating until the end of this month, said Assembly member Felix Rivera. the Assembly, which presides over housing and housing in the city. homeless committee.

After that, the city hopes to receive about $4 million from the state for the Anchorage shelter, money that would allow the shelter to continue operating until October, according to Rivera. The funds were incorporated into the state budget, but “they’re not guaranteed until the governor signs the budget,” Rivera said.

It’s unclear whether Gov. Mike Dunleavy will veto the funding or not. Dunleavy has not yet made a decision on the vetoes, his spokesperson said.

“The budget bills have not yet been forwarded to the governor,” spokesman Jeff Turner said in an email. “Once that happens, he will analyze the bills and decide whether vetoes on certain items will be issued.”

Operator Questions

The city will also need to find another shelter operator: The private nonprofit that runs the mass shelter says it has no plans to run the shelter after the end of June.

“We’re going to focus on other things,” said Shawn Hays, chief executive of Henning Inc.

Henning Inc. is under investigation by the Anchorage Assembly after a series of disturbing text messages between employees and the city’s top homeless official became public in May .

Rivera said a reporter was the first to tell him that Henning would not offer to continue running the shelter. An investigation into the allegations against Henning — including text messages raising questions about election interference — is not expected to conclude for another few weeks.

“The allegations regarding Henning are very concerning to me,” he said. “I need to know whether they are valid or not. If they are valid, I would like to terminate any contractual relationship.”

Hays has denied the allegations. In a letter sent to the Assembly on Tuesday, Hays wrote that the text messages were “misinterpreted and out of context.”

Rivera said he hopes an existing organization will increase its capacity and take over management of the shelter.

“Otherwise, it is difficult for me to imagine that a new operator could emerge,” he said.

The city health department plans to put out a request for proposals for an entity to operate the shelter from July to December, the department said. Last time, Henning was the only group that proposed operating a mass shelter, according to Hays.

All of the changes are occurring as Anchorage is poised for a significant leadership transition, with Mayor-elect Suzanne LaFrance’s administration set to take office July 1.

In a statement, LaFrance said she was “committed to maintaining current shelter capacity and developing a comprehensive shelter plan before winter.”

“I am now focused on building a competent and qualified team to prepare for the work ahead,” the statement said.

At the summer shelter

Thursday morning, a van pulled up to the shelter’s entrance and a slow trickle of people got out. They had left the Aviator Hotel, a downtown non-congregate shelter that offered unhoused people their own hotel rooms. With funding for the program ending at the end of May, people fled and turned to other situations throughout the month, according to Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless coordinator.

The people who got out of the van at the shelter were among the last to leave. Some were about to be housed through transitional housing programs, Hays said. For them, the mass shelter would be a stopover.

“I hope they come out in a few weeks,” she said.

Inside, cots were stacked an arm’s length apart, a far cry from the days of social distancing in the cavernous Sullivan Arena. While the space is better in some ways than the Sullivan — a sports and entertainment arena with lots of stairs, dark corners and concrete — it’s still essentially a garage, Hays said.

“We still think it’s inappropriate that people have to shelter in a garage,” Hays said.

The population was older, with gray hair, and wheelchairs dotted around the room.

“We find that the people who want to be housed (in the summer) are people who need help” and want to work with case managers and receive three meals a day, Hays said.

At the height of the summer months, “there are people who have been camping for decades and automatically go back outside,” she said.

Cindy Cornell was sitting outside the shelter. She had been to every type of shelter Anchorage had to offer over the past few years – from Sullivan Arena to camping at Centennial Park in the summer of 2021 to Brother Francis and beyond. Most recently, she had spent a lot of time at the shelter during the winter. Still, she had frostbite on her feet, with blisters that didn’t seem to go away, she said. She was on all the housing lists, she said.

Cornell said there were not enough bathrooms to accommodate residents, nor microwaves to heat the prepackaged meals distributed.

Darrell Thompson was sitting in a wheelchair. He’s lived at Sullivan Arena, the Aviator Hotel, Complex Care and now here. Thompson said he recently had surgery for a foot infection. It showed drains coming out of his leg. He was also attached to a supplemental oxygen machine. It’s not easy being disabled and living in a shelter, he said.

A friend handed him a breakfast bag of packaged oatmeal.

“But there are some of the most generous and kind people in the world here,” he said. “And some not so much.”

The worst part about living in a shelter is the rules, he said. “Here they treat us like 5-year-olds,” he said. “They tell us what we can do. What we can’t do. When we can go in and when we can go out.”

Still, Thompson believed the shelter was necessary for the summer.

“It keeps people off the streets,” he said. “If they were on the street, Walmart, Carrs, Fred Meyer, they would all get ripped off. Because these people have no food, no place to go.”

The number of people camping outdoors usually peaks at this time of year, with the warmer weather, said Mike Braniff, head of the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department.

The city plans to dismantle a large encampment on the hill above the Alaska Railroad depot near Ship Creek on June 2. The camp was initially given 72 hours’ notice, but officials decided to give its residents more time, Braniff said.

Meanwhile, other camps have sprung up in new areas: Some of the people living in RVs and cars at Cuddy Park have moved to a short stretch of Fairbanks Street, on the north side of the Home Depot store. A dense camp of vehicles, tents and improvised structures developed.

Fairbanks Street is “on the radar,” Braniff said, but there are no immediate plans.

A tent camp has also sprung up on the sidewalks of Karluk Street, near the Brother Francis shelter in Ship Creek.

There are also no immediate plans to dismantle that area, Braniff said.

Daily News reporter Emily Goodykoontz contributed.


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