Coalition: Anchorage will likely need more shelter beds this winter

A man walks out of the men's section of the mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
A man walks out of the men's section of the mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.(Taylor Clark)
Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 6:23 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Anchorage Assembly members got an update on the city’s homeless situation Wednesday during a work session that covered the need to get a plan in place as winter approaches.

Jasmine Boyle, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, told assembly members the pandemic has pushed up the number of people who are homeless in Anchorage but that numbers were rising even before that.

“We consistently have more people entering homelessness every month than we do exiting homelessness,” Boyle said. “And I think it is really important that we are on the same page that we are always going to need more shelter and more housing if we can’t knock that trend down.”

The city is looking to solve the immediate problem of having enough shelter beds as COVID-19 cases continue to climb and winter is on the horizon. Assembly members recently turned down the mayor’s funding request for a proposal to build a large, new shelter near the old police headquarters on Elmore Road.

Now they’re debating whether to keep the Sullivan Arena open as a mass shelter or find new space elsewhere in the city. According to Boyle, they’ll need to find even more beds than Anchorage currently has.

“We anticipate 300-400 more people needing assistance in the winter months,” she said. “So just replacing (the) Sullivan and the hotels doesn’t account for what’s going to happen in two months when our climate changes.”

There’s also the question of funding. Robert Doehl, a building official with the municipality, said the city is spending $3 million a month on sheltering that includes the Sullivan Arena and hotel rooms throughout the city. The federal government is reimbursing the full amount, but Doehl said that will change in September.

“Right now we are funded to continue operating the Sullivan mass shelter through Sept. 15 and then what we call the non-congregant shelter — that’s the leased hotels in town — ‘till Sept. 30,” Doehl said. “At that time we have to look at how much we still need to do to keep responding to the COVID disaster.”

Doehl said FEMA dollars will likely cover 75% of the cost after September, and the state has pledged to pick up the rest.

Still, the deadlines are looming. Assembly member Meg Zaletel said the public should know the assembly and the administration are working together to solve the problem.

“We are all working collaboratively and very hard to ensure that we have a great plan moving forward for the winter,” she said. “We realize the tensions between making sure there’s enough space and we can truly respond to COVID, and the need to return the Sullivan back to its regular operations.”

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