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Anchorage Assembly postpones vote on ordinances expanding where shelters can be located, requiring licenses

Anchorage City Hall.
Anchorage City Hall.(KTUU)
Updated: Jun. 8, 2021 at 11:59 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Members of the Anchorage Assembly voted to postpone the decision on two ordinances related to the city’s ongoing effort to reduce homelessness at their Tuesday meeting — one that expands where shelters can be located in Anchorage and another that requires them to be licensed.

When the assembly heard public comment on both ordinances Tuesday, much of the testimony asked the members to wait and see the plan Mayor-elect Dave Bronson’s incoming administration has to tackle the city’s issue with people experiencing homelessness.

“Passing it tonight would be a little concerning considering we have an incoming mayor who campaigned majorly on this issue,” said one commenter. Another called postponing until the new administration comes in an act of good faith.

The assembly members voted unanimously to postpone voting on the ordinance that would require shelters to be licensed, and the ordinance that would expand where shelters can be located. The assembly will take them up again on June 22. A proposal to postpone the licensing ordinance until July 13, after Bronson takes office, was voted down.

The ordinances drew significant public comment during two town hall meetings held last week. One of the measures would establish a municipal requirement for homeless shelters to be licensed. A substituted version of that ordinance with several changes and edits states that the purpose “is to establish minimum standards of care and operation for homeless shelters in the municipality, enable and maintain data collection and monitoring of the homeless population.”

The ordinance would take effect on Jan. 1, 2023, after which no shelter could operate in the city if it was not licensed. The measure spells out different license types for different kinds of shelters — those open at night versus those open in the day — and licenses would need to be renewed every three years.

The licensing ordinance would also require shelters to maintain insurance coverage.

Some who currently run homeless shelters in the city oppose the licensing ordinance as written, and say it’s government overreach that shifts responsibility for some of the behavior and crimes associated with homelessness onto the shelters, when it should reside with the city.

Rev. John LaMantia of the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission said during Tuesday’s meeting that the licensing ordinance doesn’t actually supply a tool for the city to prevent future shelters from having negative impacts on the neighborhoods around them.

“They (the assembly) say they need a tool to guarantee that the loitering, the litter and property destruction around a downtown shelter is not duplicated,” he said, referencing other homeless shelters members of the assembly have pointed to as “problem” shelters. “Well, the shelter ordinance has nothing to do with supplying that tool. This is about control.”

The ordinance would require shelters to present a “good neighbor policy” during the licensing process detailing how they would mitigate such issues as loitering or litter, but many providers and other commenters argued more needed to be done by the city to address those issues.

“The issue of individuals camping in areas around the shelters is not something that the shelters themselves often have much ability to control,” said Catholic Social Services CEO Lisa Aquino. “It’s really up to police and local government to really work together to solve these issues.”

When it came to the ordinance expanding where shelters can be located in Anchorage, assembly members heard similar comments, that it would be a burden to homeless shelters and that people wanted the body to take more time to work on the document.

The ordinance would add a new use type to the city’s zoning code, called the “homeless and transient shelter” use. The use type would be added to the B-3, General Business zoning district as a conditional use.

Anchorage zoning code currently prohibits shelters in almost all of the city’s zoning districts, except for the public lands and institutions district. The ordinance text points out that much of that district is “already occupied by parks and major institutions.”

“The consequence of only allowing 26 homeless shelters in one district is a very limited supply of land that allows this use 27 and a shortage of bed space,” states a memo from Acting Anchorage Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson to the assembly. “The B-3 district is located in commercial areas along 28 major street corridors with good access to public transportation.”

The ordinance would set up the following standards for new shelters under the conditional use: That they be separated by more than 500 feet to avoid concentration, that they be located within a quarter mile of public transportation or have a plan to provide transportation to the people staying there, and that they have “secure storage” onsite for the personal belongings of guests. Supporters argued it would allow for a move away from mass shelters like the one at the Sullivan arena.

“Mass shelters that consolidate the entire homeless population into one spot are simply too much for one community to absorb,” said one commenter.

There will be a special meeting from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. next Tuesday, June 15 during which Bronson’s transition team will discuss its plan for addressing homelessness in Anchorage. The meeting will be held in the Assembly Chambers in the Loussac Library.

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