No place to go: Anchorage's homeless shelter capacity has been pushed to the brink

·9 min read

Jul. 30—There is no slack in Anchorage's homelessness response system.

Shelters and housing programs are largely full, many with long waitlists. For the first time in decades, there is no walk-in, low-barrier homeless shelter in Anchorage.

City officials, social service providers and advocates are all rushing to come up with quick solutions to house and shelter Anchorage's homeless residents before the onset of cold winter weather.

For anyone who becomes homeless, "the only option you have right now is to go camp in the woods or go to Centennial," said Nancy Burke, United Way's special assistant for housing and COVID-19 response.

Service providers say that once freezing temperatures arrive, the most dire need will be for low-barrier shelter spaces, which have minimal requirements for entry and don't require sobriety. That's the kind of capacity that, right now, exists only outdoors at Centennial Park Campground in northeast Anchorage, where Mayor Dave Bronson's administration directed homeless people as it closed down the mass shelter at Sullivan Arena.

"It's the low-barrier piece that's really going to make all the difference, moving forward into the winter," said Robin Dempsey, executive director of Catholic Social Services, which oversees Brother Francis Shelter. "Because we need to know that no matter who you are or what your life looks like in this moment, that there's going to be a safe place for you to find shelter. So I'm hopeful. I hope that'll happen. I mean, lives really will be at stake if we don't figure this out."

The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates that more than 350 people are living unsheltered — at Centennial Park, in unsanctioned camps scattered across the city's green spaces, in their vehicles, or in other places not suited for human habitation.

And more than 230 homeless residents that the city has put up in rooms at the Aviator Hotel are slated to lose their shelter when city funding runs out at the end of September, unless more shelter beds or housing opportunities are rapidly stood up.

Each month since November of last year, more than 100 people have moved from homelessness into housing, according to data compiled by the coalition. But in that same timeframe, about twice as many people enter into the city's homelessness response system.

While not all necessarily need immediate shelter, those individuals are all accessing some form of homeless support services.

Expansion challenges

Bronson officials have said that a planned 150-bed shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage will not be finished until the end of January. That's still contingent on the city acquiring a federal permit from the Army Corps of Engineers to build in the wetlands area.

In the meantime, shelters across the city are contending with surging demand. The closure of Sullivan Arena as an emergency shelter last month sent people in search of alternative options, filling almost every available space across the city's network of nonprofits and service providers.

Many of the organizations say they have no idea where those at the city-sanctioned Centennial campground or unsanctioned encampments around Anchorage will go once colder weather arrives.

"All the shelters are full. There's nowhere to refer people to," Dempsey said.

The pandemic forced Brother Francis Shelter — which long served as a landing pad for people needing a place to stay — to drastically reduce its capacity to 76. At its height in the years before COVID, the shelter near downtown Anchorage would fit 240 individuals on mats laid on the floor. Dozens more people slept outdoors on the sidewalk and in the wooded lot across Third Avenue.

"When we had those higher numbers, we had a more transient group," Dempsey said.

There were many other problems that came with handling such a large volume of people in a relatively small building. Staff members were often so busy managing the immediate needs of clients that they couldn't devote much time to helping them navigate housing and benefits programs.

"They have more space right now," Dempsey said. "Our client-to-staff ratio is much better."

That's part of the reason Brother Francis is adamant the shelter will not go back to the way things were. They plan on modestly increasing the number of beds to 120 as winter approaches, and were granted funds by the Assembly to do so. But they, like others, don't have the capacity to absorb all the people sleeping outdoors right now. No longer a walk-in shelter, Brother Francis now operates on referrals and waitlists.

It is hardly alone.

Not far away, the Downtown Hope Center, a faith-based soup kitchen, has seen an overall increase in need since the Sullivan closed.

"We've seen a lot of change," said executive director Sherrie Laurie. "A lot of the women from there have come down here."

The center expanded its number of overnight beds to 57, and has started letting women sleep on cots in an enclosed outdoor area beneath an awning. That space can fit up to 15 people, but it hasn't gotten that full yet.

"We can only probably do it until, I'm thinking, the end of September," Laurie said. "There's no other place."

The organization recently expanded, purchasing an 18-unit apartment complex to house participants in its culinary and baking job training program. Even though the one-bedroom units host three to four women each, according to Laurie, demand remains high. And with more people comes more stress on all of the ancillary services the center provides — more loads of laundry, more showers, more meals at the soup kitchen.

Elsewhere, the city's greenbelt is still hosting dozens of scattered encampments. Without bed spaces available indoors, the municipality cannot legally abate camps from public lands.

Although the sanctioned campground at Centennial has been fraught with problems — such as criminal activity, a lack of services, bears attracted by campers' food — acting Parks and Recreation Director Mike Braniff, Laurie and others contend that the camping happening there is a more orderly option when measured against some alternatives.

Overall, according to Braniff and the municipal employees he oversees, smaller numbers of people are clustering at illegal encampments along the trails. Many of the parks employees who would normally be doing camp abatement and cleanup this time of year have been moved over to Centennial, and are now helping with operations there. Less waste is being hauled off of public lands compared to past years, according to Braniff.

'Inflow and outflow'

On Tuesday, the Assembly passed a funding package to jumpstart homeless efforts before winter, including $433,000 to help Brother Francis add 44 more beds.

Another $1.2 million will go to the Anchorage Health Department to develop and write an emergency shelter plan for the city and stand up adult emergency sheltering and cold weather response.

Alexis Johnson, Mayor Bronson's chief of staff, said the administration is working on a winter sheltering plan and will draft it and submit it to the Assembly. They will be doing a callout to churches for sheltering help, she said.

"The focus right now that you'll see with this entire city is this," Johnson said. "Let's get ahead of it before the snow flies."

The Assembly also spent half a million dollars to rehabilitate about 60 rental units through United Way's Landlord Housing Partnership. Once the program locates those units, they'll be earmarked for people experiencing homelessness, said Burke, who assists in overseeing the program and previously served as the city's homeless coordinator in the Berkowitz administration.

And demand is high: An extremely competitive rental market — especially for low-income and prospective renters who are experiencing homelessness — has pushed more families to the brink, Burke said.

Rob Marx, who oversees supportive housing efforts for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, said people who want to camp or choose to do so are statistical outliers, and may face a lack of options. Most others, with the right support, are seeking a place to stay — but those units aren't available.

"It's not like all those people are waiting to get an apartment that exists. That, I think, that's really the big part. There aren't those apartments out there," he said.

There are many reasons why people experiencing homelessness might also be wary of social services offering help, according to Marx. For example, many may have suffered trauma, may have experienced serious trauma while staying at a shelter previously or may have untreated mental illness and substance use issues.

"It's always colored by the person's personal experience and history experience with the social services, you know, homeless social service agencies in town," Marx said.

While movement through the city's shelters and homelessness response system is slow, it is happening, said Capt. Denise Delgado, the Salvation Army's social services director in Anchorage.

Each day, shelter bed availability fluctuates as individuals and families leave or go into housing.

"So they may not have capacity today, but tomorrow is a different story. And so it's really working within the system that's already here and plugging people that are here into that system," Delgado said.

At Centennial, the Salvation Army has been coordinating client services, surveying the unsheltered people living there and connecting them to services. So far, it has moved more than 34 people out of the campground, Delgado said.

Still, others move in and fill up the open spots in the campground, she said.

"There's an inflow and outflow there. And that's part of the success and also the challenge," said Braniff, with Parks and Rec.

Braniff said Friday that about 200 people are camping at Centennial, give or take.

For people at Centennial and others experiencing unsheltered homelessness, the obstacles to getting into already-scarce services or housing and into the workforce are numerous. People need access to phones, transportation and help to acquire identification, paperwork, health care and much more. Many have mental health issues, suffer substance use disorders or trauma, and face difficult economic barriers.

"With homelessness, it would have been fixed right now if it was easy, right?" Delgado said. "So it's multifaceted. It's layered. It's a number of things."