Anchorage still awaiting FEMA reimbursements as municipality transitions out of mass care for homelessness

Published: Apr. 18, 2022 at 8:04 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As the Municipality of Anchorage gets closer to its goal of transitioning out of emergency mass care for homelessness, some are starting to wonder exactly how and when the costs accrued at the Sullivan Arena are going to be paid.

The Sullivan Arena has been in use as an emergency shelter since March 2020, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and now in April 2022, people walking in front of the building were not getting tickets for an event, but going in to the one place some of them have been calling home for more than two years now.

“If you were to ask me in March of 2020 if we were going to be in this situation right now, I couldn’t have imagined it,” said Anchorage Assembly member Felix Rivera, who represents Midtown.

Rivera, who is also the chair of the assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness, said roughly 300 people are staying at the Sullivan daily right now, but during the pandemic that number has been as high as 500.

“It certainly is an expensive facility to maintain, whereas if we were to put all of those resources to maintain the Sullivan, put them into treatment services or put them into housing, perhaps a better use of our dollars,“ Rivera said. “But that’s what we are doing right now, right? We’re transitioning those dollars and that spend to something that we hope will be more useful.”

A summary of FEMA reimbursements for COVID-19 expenditures that was presented during a budget committee meeting last month appeared to indicate FEMA might not be obligated to reimburse the municipality for sheltering operations from mid September 2020 to the end of June 2021, in the amount of $7.2 million. Director of Management and Budget Cheryl Frasca said the municipality is currently seeking FEMA funds to offset those costs.

”We submit it, they ask questions, additional information is provided and it goes back and forth, so it can take years in order to get these kinds of expenses reimbursed,” Frasca said at a recent press conference for the municipal budget. “And so yes, we are not looking to taxpayers to cover these costs.”

Rivera said he is remains fully confident FEMA will reimburse the municipality, but noted it can be a lengthy process.

”Right now we are basically using our savings to cover these costs, so, you know, we really need to FEMA to reimburse us to basically refill our savings,” he said.

”This is years and years down the line,” Rivera continued. “So we have a lot of work to do with FEMA before this becomes anything that could potentially affect property taxes here in the municipality.”

Anchorage leaders want to transition out of the Sullivan Arena by June 30. The Committee on Housing and Homelessness has a meeting on April 20.

Meanwhile, what was once a wide range of mass care services across the municipality is now dwindling as Anchorage transitions into the new plan for addressing homelessness. On Monday, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness and the assembly got together to talk about how those plans are progressing.

Meg Zaletel, the interim executive director of the coalition, said a few mass care sites have closed down for these services, including the Guest House which was used for quarantine and isolation for people in mass care, the Alex Hotel which was a mass care site for non-congregate sheltering, and the Sockeye Inn which will reopen in June as a complex care shelter.

“We’re just at a little over 10 weeks remaining until the closure of mass care,” Zaletel said. “So it is still a very intensive period, but looks like we’re headed in the right direction to actively house as many individuals as possible, and we wouldn’t be able to be on this track quite frankly without cross organizational support.”

Some of the other organizations and agencies involved are Beans Café, 99 Plus One, Catholic Social Services, and the Anchorage Health Department. The city’s new plan includes a larger shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage, coupled with additional smaller shelters around the city that can serve populations with specific needs.

The remaining mass care locations are the Sullivan Arena and a non-congregate location at the Aviator Hotel.

“We’ve been able to wind down three locations with no out placements to shelter,” Zaletel said. “So I think that is really a harbinger of success, because that’s what we’re hoping for is people to be on a path to housing, or in housing, and not moving from ... a mass care location into shelter.”

She said for the Aviator Hotel, they have changed it from a non-congregate shelter to a housing stability program with 67 rooms available. Currently the hotel is housing 241 people — many rooms have multiple people in them — according to the Anchorage Health Department dashboard.

Zaletel went on to say the people there are on a path toward housing and that successful housing placements are happening.

“Maybe we focused initially on shelter and increasing shelter capacity, we’re really starting to broaden our thinking to thinking about housing and how we can really skip that shelter piece and go straight into housing,” Rivera said in the Monday zoom call. “So looking forward to engaging in that work not only through June 30, but beyond that because we know this needs to be a long-term focus and strategy for the municipality and our community partners.”

This week, the HUD exchange, which provides poverty technical assistance, will be back in town to help people apply for emergency housing vouchers.

The coalition is making a housing dashboard to be able to track data on housing placements, which Zaletel said should be set up by the end of April.

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