Anchorage looks to increase non-congregate sheltering options for homeless population

The Municipality of Anchorage is using CARES Act money to help homeless shelters.
Published: Oct. 21, 2020 at 4:28 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As temperatures drop, more people are seeking shelter, leading to what Anchorage’s homeless coordinator Nancy Burke called a “challenging position” for the city.

On some nights, there wasn’t enough space at the emergency shelter inside the Sullivan Arena, which is the only shelter currently open for referrals. People had to be added to a waitlist or turned away.

That hasn’t happened again since the city secured 70 area hotel rooms this month to create more space at Sullivan Arena, according to Burke.

In a presentation to the Anchorage Assembly Committee on Homelessness Wednesday, Burke said the capacity in the city’s contract for the Sullivan Arena is 350, but this month, it’s been over capacity, sheltering 375 people, while 68 of the 70 hotel rooms are full.

“We are already likely experiencing an uptick in homelessness due to COVID or other circumstances, we just simply don’t have a good estimate of how much higher we think that will go over the remaining months of this winter,” said Burke.

The pandemic has forced several shelters to operate at a reduced capacity, to allow for distancing. For instance, the Brother Francis Shelter capacity in the winter of 2019 was 240. Currently, it’s at 62.

Outreach teams identified 285 people during August and September who had not been using shelter services.

“What we’re faced with is the reality that we do have space for those almost, well, 285 people to come inside at this time,” said Jasmine Boyle, the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “And so we aren’t left with a whole lot of options when it is snowing, of course, and there is no shelter for this new group of people who we have begun to work with to come inside.”

More than 15,000 people have signed a petition calling on the city to reinstate the Ben Boeke Ice Arena as additional shelter space, but that is not being pursued under the current plan.

According to the Anchorage Health Department on Wednesday, a total of 313 cases of COVID-19 had been identified in Anchorage’s homeless population through Oct. 20. Of those individuals, 13 are believed to still be infections, 21 have been hospitalized and three people have died.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report with recommendations for how the Municipality of Anchorage can help protect people who are experiencing homelessness from COVID-19.

The three primary recommendations are:

  1. Convene a multi-agency task force to coordinate the response to COVID-19 among people experiencing homelessness in Anchorage
  2. Separate the isolation and quarantine locations, enhance the homeless services provided onsite, and facilitate access to different housing at the completion of isolation or quarantine
  3. Prioritize moving people who are at the highest risk of severe illness from COVID-19 to non-congregate shelter options, which would allow more congregate shelter beds to be available during the winter months

A multi-agency task force is in place and has started holding weekly meetings to work on implementing the other recommendations, according to Heather Harris, director of AHD.

“Preliminary information shows that about 40% of the people in shelter or unsheltered situations could meet the definition of the at-risk category and need that safe, non-congregate setting to protect them from potential outbreaks,” said Harris.

Based on the CDC guidance, the city is looking to move toward more non-congregate sheltering options, rather than reinstating the Ben Boeke Arena as additional shelter space.

Burke said the plan for winter is to decompress the Sullivan Arena by moving people into temporary non-congregate units, such as hotel rooms, then move those individuals into housing through a rapid-rehousing program, creating space to further alleviate crowding at the Sullivan Arena.

The goal is to operate the emergency shelter at the Sullivan Arena at 8% below capacity, to ensure there is enough room for additional occupants.

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