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Anchorage Assembly passes controversial ordinances aimed at addressing homelessness

Anchorage City Hall.
Anchorage City Hall.(KTUU)
Published: Jun. 22, 2021 at 3:26 PM AKDT|Updated: Jun. 22, 2021 at 10:57 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - After postponing them among significant feedback and concern from the public, members of the Anchorage Assembly approved two ordinances aimed at reducing homelessness within the city at their meeting Tuesday night.

Following lengthy discussion and several amendments, members of the assembly voted to pass one ordinance that requires homeless shelters to be licensed, and another that expands where shelters can be located within the municipality.

The zoning ordinance adds a new use type to the city’s B-3 General Business zoning district, called the “homeless and transient shelter” use. It will be a conditional use type. It passed 8-2, with assembly members Jamie Allard and Crystal Kennedy voting no.

At the assembly’s last meeting, this measure drew pushback from some people who were concerned it could create negative impacts for some neighborhoods and the business community if shelters were allowed more broadly.

Currently, homeless shelters are allowed in Anchorage’s public lands and institutions district. According to the ordinance text, much of that district is “already occupied by parks and major institutions.”

While some worry about the implications for the city’s business district should this ordinance pass, others say expanding where shelters can be located would allow the city to move away from mass shelters like the one currently housed in the Sullivan Arena.

The assembly did pass an amendment to this ordinance that limits the number of people served by an overnight shelter in the B-3 district to 150. Larger shelters could seek a variance. The intent there, according to assembly member Meg Zaletel, is to get larger shelters to show how there would be no impacts on surrounding neighborhoods and how the shelter would fit within the site plan for that location.

Before the ordinance was approved, Zaletel said she did hear people’s concerns about neighborhoods being impacted by allowing homeless shelters in the B-3 zoning district. She said, however, this change won’t likely result in several new shelters popping up within the city.

“We reasonably need one to two more operations within the Municipality of Anchorage,” Zaletel said. “Whether that takes place in B-3 or PLI zoning, both require a conditional use process. This is not the end of the public process for a shelter to go and come online.”

Assembly member John Weddleton added that, since the change is specific to the B-3 General Business zoning district, shelters might be near residential neighborhoods, but not in them.

“We’re not bringing something horrible to your neighborhood,” he said. “What we’re bringing is hope to your neighborhood.”

The other ordinance approved at Tuesday’s meeting requires homeless shelters to be licensed. It also passed 8-2, also with Allard and Kennedy casting the no votes. Kennedy made a motion to postpone the ordinance again, which failed.

Weddleton, one of its sponsors, has cited downtown shelters that had issues with loitering and litter in the past, saying this ordinance is an attempt to avoid “problem” shelters in the future.

“My main incentive here, motivation, was protecting neighborhoods,” Weddleton said during assembly deliberation.

He said the city does have shelters that perform a critical task very well.

“There’s nothing here (in the ordinance) that is to beat down those efforts,” he said.

“But we also know that they can go wrong,” Weddleton continued. “And we had an example where there was a real problem on 3rd Avenue. And there was a lot of reasons for that, but part of it was the policies of that shelter, and we had absolutely no tool to influence those policies. This gives us a tool.”

The ordinance requires shelters to present a “good neighbor policy” during the process of obtaining their license, spelling out how they would mitigate such issues as loitering or litter outside the premises. Existing homeless shelter operators have said those issues are the responsibility of the city to mitigate.

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

The ordinance requiring shelters to be licensed takes effect on Jan. 1, 2023. It details different license types for different kinds of shelters and would require license renewal every three years.

The licensing ordinance also requires shelters to maintain insurance coverage.

The assembly made a number of changes to the measure since its last meeting, addressing concerns about background checks potentially keeping people who have committed what are called barrier crimes from being able to work at or volunteer for homeless shelters later on. Shelter operators have said many of their own clients later become volunteers and staff members.

“I think you’ll see in the S-1 version (of the ordinance) concerns around background checks, fingerprinting, barrier crimes, have all hopefully been resolved,” Zaletel said. “We really took to heart what we heard from the shelter providers. This now provides a pathway forward to show what your current practice is and start with that evaluation.”

An amendment the assembly made to the licensing ordinance did remove directors or officers associated with oversight boards for shelters from the background check requirement.

Speaking to the issue of background checks, Zaletel said they are only for the application process for homeless shelters.

“When we have an entity wanting to stand up a care facility for vulnerable people, requiring background checks, or asking for an alternate way to ensure that the governance of that entity and those in charge of that entity are going to conduct business in a safe way, I don’t think is unreasonable,” she said.

Ultimately, the amendment to remove directors and officers of shelter oversight boards from the ordinance language passed unanimously.

In her comments, Kennedy voiced ongoing questions and concerns she has about the licensing process. Both Zaletel and Weddleton countered that it is not uncommon for the city to continue tweaking code after a new ordinance has been passed. Weddleton pointed to the assembly’s experience creating licensing code for the local marijuana industry, and said further refinements can be made.

Jamie Allard, the other no vote on the licensing ordinance, referenced an email from Anchorage Health Department Director Heather Harris outlining concerns on her part in terms of what the ordinance would mean for the department.

“I think it’s hamstringing our nonprofits,” Allard said. “They’re here to help us. ... So many people in our community volunteer, and what we’re telling them is it doesn’t matter. We’re going to step in as the government because we think we can do a better job.”

Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia said he had initially been against taking up the licensing ordinance before Mayor-elect Dave Bronson’s administration was in place in July 1, so that the assembly could work collaboratively with that administration.

“My main concern is really how it’s going to impact the shelters’ ability to serve in a really responsible and thoughtful way,” he said.

Perez-Verdia said he was able to support the ordinance knowing the fact that the assembly can continue to refine the code on shelter licensing.

Zaletel said the licensing ordinance fills a donut hole when it comes to homelessness services in Anchorage. It sets up a baseline for ensuring the city is mindful about “how we care for the most vulnerable in our community,” she said.

“Don’t let good be the victim of perfect,” added assembly member Christopher Constant.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include more information from Tuesday’s assembly meeting.

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