Anchorage Assembly votes to support new homelessness plan, reinstates suspension on plastic bag ban

The Anchorage Assembly meets for a special meeting on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021 in the Loussac...
The Anchorage Assembly meets for a special meeting on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021 in the Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska.(Jeremy Kashatok/Alaska's News Source)
Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 10:37 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Among several other measures taken up and voted on at a special Anchorage Assembly meeting on Monday, members of the assembly passed a resolution that supports the new compromise plan to transition people out of the emergency mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena and lays out a framework for long-term homelessness solutions.

The resolution, which passed unanimously 10-0, expresses the assembly’s support of and commitment to the proposed strategy for transitioning out of the Sullivan Arena shelter and providing for more stable housing for those experiencing homelessness in the city into the future. The new plan is a compromise reached by a negotiation team made up of members from the assembly and from Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, who worked for months with a third-party facilitator to come to an agreement.

The new plan calls for several smaller shelters throughout the city, in combination with the several existing privately-run shelters.

“This framework that we are agreeing to that has been negotiated establishes a multi-site plan, or a multi-site philosophy, that I think achieves the best outcomes for the residents who use these facilities and also for some of the neighborhoods where they are located,” Assembly member Forrest Dunbar said ahead of the vote.

It’s seen as a first step toward addressing an issue that has long plagued Anchorage and was intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bronson’s administration initially approached the assembly asking for funding for a mass shelter and navigation center that would house more than 400 people, a proposal that the assembly rejected.

Now that the new plan has the official assembly support, Larry Baker, a member of Bronson’s administration and a member of the negotiating team, said appropriation items for funding and several other measures will follow.

“I think that it’s an important fact that, collectively, that over 22, 23 meetings, we’ve spent over 800 hours in this process,” Baker said of arriving at the new proposal. “And that is a long time on a very important issue to this community.”

Several members of the public spoke in support of the resolution and the larger proposal to tackle homelessness, including Timothy Beers, who said he himself is homeless.

“As we know, a mass shelter does not work,” he said. Beers said he was glad to see the city considering multiple shelters.

The resolution was amended before it passed, and one amendment deleted mentions of specific addresses in terms of locations being considered for possible shelter sites. Some assembly members said they’ve heard from members of the public who were worried the city had already decided on those locations.

Assembly member Meg Zaletel, a member of the negotiating team, said the amendment was meant to emphasize that no final decisions have been made on shelter locations yet. An informational memorandum was later attached to the resolution that includes the summary of a report that was done analyzing several location options, so the information is still available.

Several members of the assembly spoke of their support for the resolution, the new plan to address homelessness and their desire to move forward.

“I think we all know we need to get something done, yesterday,” said assembly member John Weddleton, a member of the negotiating team.

Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant, the third assembly member on the negotiating team, said they worked to find common ground.

“This document demonstrates, to me, a very strong commitment by the assembly if we adopt this, and a very strong commitment by the mayor’s administration to move to the next step,” Constant said ahead of the vote. “And the next step is the issue of, let’s get people out of mass care and off the streets and into a proper place.”

Zaletel emphasized needing a compassionate response when forming plan to transition away from the mass care situation at the Sullivan Arena.

“I am very proud of the product we have here,” she said, also saying that it just the first step.

Next, Zaletel said, comes the hard work, including braiding together the different funding streams that will be needed to make the proposal possible.

Also during discussion of the homelessness resolution, Baker announced that Anchorage Health Department Director Joe Gerace will become a member of the joint negotiating team made up of assembly and administration members. The administration had recently lost two of its negotiation team members with Craig Campbell and Dr. John Morris resigned from the city.

Also during Monday’s special meeting, assembly members voted to reinstate the suspension of the city’s ban on single-use plastic bags through the end of the year.

Since 2019, Anchorage has had a ban on single-use plastic bags being given out by retailers. According to city code, retailers may provide an alternative bag, like paper, and must charge an additional 10 cents per bag. There are also exceptions for things like in-store plastic bags that are used to hold fresh produce or to stop items from leaking.

During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was thought that the virus could also spread easily across surfaces, and retailers across the state expressed concerns about how sanitary reusable bags were in relation to the pandemic. Several municipalities, including Anchorage, temporarily suspended their bans on plastic bags to allow them to be used again during the pandemic.

Anchorage’s suspension of its plastic bag ban ended in late August, but Bronson immediately moved to extend that suspension.

“With supply chain shortages and delays, the rise is COVID-19 case counts, and the massive expansion in curbside pick-up and delivery that has limited the use of personal and reusable bags, this policy should be extended until we can get our hands around a variety of outstanding issues,” Bronson said in a press release at the time. " ... While I generally disagree with the underlying policy banning the distribution of plastic bags, I think we can all agree that a temporary moratorium on this policy is the right approach.”

At Monday’s special assembly meeting, members voted 7-3 to pass a substitute version of an ordinance that extends the suspension of the bag ban until Jan. 1, 2022. The original ordinance brought forward by Bronson and the administration sought to extend the bag ban suspension through May of next year.

The ordinance states that “an extension of the suspension would be beneficial to allow retailers to continue to utilize their existing stock of plastic bags and to continue limiting contacts between employees and customers.”

Assembly members Zaletel, Felix Rivera and Kameron Perez-Verdia cast the three no votes. A handful of people spoke up during the public hearing Monday to voice both support and opposition to the measure.

Assembly member Crystal Kennedy pointed out that there’s nothing in the city’s ordinance that prevents the public from using their own plastic bags — it only applies to bags given out by retailers.

“It allows some flexibility to the end of the year,” she said of the substitute ordinance.

Constant said he was torn on the issue, but said suspending the ban through the holidays would allow retailers to use the plastic bag supplies they currently have. He also referenced supply chain issues for things like paper products.

“I do have a lot of sympathy for the folks that are trying to operate their businesses and who can’t make purchases right now,” Constant, who eventually voted yes on the ordinance, said.

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