The real cost of the Assembly’s inaction on homelessness

When the Anchorage Assembly torpedoed Mayor Dave Bronson’s ambitious mass homeless shelter proposal on July 13, it came as a shock to many residents invested in the way forward. It is not exactly a surprise to the Assembly to view Bronson’s plan with skepticism; In addition to its members’ political disagreements with the new mayor, the rapidly rising cost of the proposed facility deserved careful consideration. What the action of the Assembly laid bare, however, is that with less than three months before federal money was most likely used up for the operation of the temporary mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena, Anchorage is effectively back to square one on a solution to the homeless – and at this point the Assembly has only itself to blame.

The road that got us here is winding: the windfall in federal funding during the pandemic prompted the municipality to think further about the Anchorage roaming issue, both in terms of facilities and scope. of the services they offer. This led to plans by the Berkowitz administration to decentralize homeless services, learning from the backlash from the population concentrated near the Third Avenue and Karluk Street homeless services corridor. A year ago, the municipality planned to buy four properties – the former Golden Lion Hotel, the Midtown Alaska Club building, America’s Best Value Inn & Suites, and Bean’s Cafe – and to make each a hub for different aspects of roaming related services.

But the plan did not work out as the municipality had expected. The purchase of the Golden Lion, intended to provide drug treatment, continued despite public outcry, but the Alaska Club building and America’s Best Value Inn were deemed insufficient and plans to purchase them were canceled – and, in the case of the Alaska Club, ultimately resurrected. Instead of the municipality buying Bean’s Cafe, a housing group led by Weidner Properties and the Rasmuson Foundation stepped in.

Some of these developments were good: in the case of the purchase of the Bean’s Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter, the housing group promised improvements and more structured services, and to have the facility in the hands of an organization to nonprofit means that taxpayers will not foot the bill for the purchase or operation. But for the others, there was a distressing common theme: as the pieces of the puzzle fell apart, the administration and the Assembly did not act in a rush to find other options; instead, they waited for a new administration to articulate its vision – and then sharply rejected it as well – without bothering to debate the merits of changing it or providing an alternative path.

So here we are, 14 months after the Sullivan Arena was used as a mass shelter and few options to replace it. And while the arena was a viable short-term solution, it was also expensive – by February, after around 11 months of use, it cost $ 8.7 million to operate. And unless the administration is able to convince federal officials to say hello, we’re within three months of Anchorage residents to pay that bill, as FEMA funding for the site expires September 30. . After that date, having had 14 months to plan ahead and do nothing, the Assembly will be stuck in funding the facility of $ 26,000 per day.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, having realized that they had largely wasted the past year, some Coven members have offered to keep the Sullivan Arena as a shelter while they research other options. If that sounds a bit like the legislature’s long-standing inability to develop a long-term fiscal solution, it should be: both were born out of the same inertia, the feeling that while not ideal , the status quo works well enough and the tough decisions can be made later. And both have real costs to Alaskans who ultimately bear the cost, in savings spent and resources wasted. The Assembly created this problem when, under the leadership of President Felix Rivera and now Suzanne LaFrance, it did nothing to try to solve a problem it knew to come as accommodation options fell to the ground. water. It is the pinnacle of irresponsible governance.

The flaws of the Bronson plan were obvious, but it was at least a starting point for discussion – or could have been. Whether members agree or disagree with aspects of the proposal, it was the most lucid attempt to address the homelessness problem Anchorage has seen in decades. If there were any aspects that members did not agree with, they should have done so by putting it on the table for a discussion. This is how compromises are made. An overview of this discussion was evident in an amendment proposed by Covenants Meg Zaletel and Forrest Dunbar, which would have reduced Bronson’s mass shelter and linked him to the purchase of the Alaska Club. But the chance to debate this proposal is also dead, thanks to the Assembly’s decision to abolish the measure altogether. Based on recent events, residents are correct in assuming that the Assembly is not interested in fully addressing this issue.

The Sullivan Arena has been operating as a mass shelter for almost a year and a half, and within a few weeks the funding for its continued operation is expected to run out. Inaction – the path mapped out by the Assembly for over a year – is no longer an option. Continuing with the Sullivan as a mass shelter despite its obvious shortcomings and heavy expense is equally irresponsible. After having kicked the box, the Assembly no longer has the luxury of waiting for plans to be proposed to it, to crush them without a public hearing. Assembly President Suzanne LaFrance released a statement on Wednesday reassuring the public that the group and the mayor’s administration were working on a compromise solution. This solution must be worked out transparently and urgently, as September 30 is fast approaching – just like winter, when the consequences of not having a suitable shelter solution will become much more serious. We cannot afford to play politics for another year.

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