Seeking Shelter/Seeking Solutions: Many Anchorage homeless plans crumble while other cities find success

Portland and Houston tout proven results in resolving homelessness, but each uses a different approach. Anchorage points to one successful effort.
Seeking Shelter/Seeking Solutions: Many Anchorage homeless plans crumble while other cities find success
Published: Sep. 1, 2023 at 7:58 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 2, 2023 at 12:11 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Anchorage municipality leaders have quarreled over various policies regarding homelessness since Mayor Dave Bronson took office in July 2021, particularly over what type of shelter plans will work the best here.

In recent months, Anchorage officials have discussed a wide range of possible solutions, and several housing alternatives still remain on the table, even as other highly publicized efforts seem to have gone away.

What hasn’t gone away are the homeless people living on the streets, sprawled out on sidewalks, camping in tents. Some congregate in tent cities — which only grow larger and larger. These are the people the public may see, but some homelessness experts say any successful response to the crisis must also include those staying in temporary shelters, as well as the ones struggling to remain in their homes.

Anchorage officials and charitable service providers still haven’t agreed on a coordinated effort, nor settled on one unified vision in the way that some cities around the nation have. Bronson argues that government should not be in the permanent housing business, while social service agencies say it is the government’s responsibility to fund and support these programs.

Last summer, city officials transformed Centennial Campground into a massive shelter, but it was soon plagued with problems. That’s why they proposed different solutions this year. They considered purchasing small pallet shelters that one or two people could occupy. They also suggested setting up sanctioned camps and dispersing them throughout the city, with each site providing resources to the homeless. But it didn’t take long before those ideas were shattered.

“As a business person, I’m very frustrated,” Anchorage business owner Vince Spezialy said.

Spezialy owns a music and dance school in South Anchorage across the street from one of those proposed camps. He was upset that city officials didn’t ask for any community input before making their decision.

“I’d be concerned if there’s this low-barrier facility across the street, for what kind of a neighborhood feel we’re going to have,” Spezialy said. “People walking around, walking into the business.”

The city finally agreed to test out just one location: the National Archives site near Cuddy Park in Midtown. But it never opened.

Felix Rivera, the chair of the Anchorage Assembly Committee on Housing and Homelessness, confirmed in an email that there will be no sanctioned camp established at the National Archives site, nor was money ever appropriated for the purchase of tiny pallet homes. That follows an aborted plan earlier in the year to turn Midtown’s Arctic Rec Center into a homeless shelter.

The Anchorage response to homelessness clashes with what reporters with Alaska’s News Source found in Houston, where government and private social service agencies work together towards one single goal — finding permanent housing for the homeless.

“That is probably a flaw in our system, quite frankly,” Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness Executive Director Meg Zaletel said. “But that means full alignment, full alignment that housing is the solution to homelessness, that ‘housing first’ is the response and that we agree that coordinated leveraged funding from all sources goes towards that goal.”

“If you don’t set up shelter to be housing-focused, you’re not moving towards the solution. Hard stop,” Zaletel added.

Portland’s similar struggles

Like Anchorage, the city of Portland, Oregon, has also struggled with focusing its efforts. The city recently turned to Los Angeles for possible solutions. Officials in that city have contracted with Urban Alchemy — a group that manages several villages composed of tents and tiny homes. Adrian Thomas from KPTV News in Portland traveled to Los Angeles to learn more about their program.

Carrie Bell is the site director for Urban Alchemy’s ‘Lincoln Safe Sleep Village’ in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles model is being used in Southeast Portland now. The majority of Urban Alchemy’s staff are formerly incarcerated or have experienced homelessness. The group says this is a unique approach to providing homeless services, giving formerly incarcerated people a second chance at a career and creating more personal relationships with those living at the sites.

Bell says this helps ease the tension with people fresh off the Los Angeles streets.

“I was drug addicted, I was homeless, I was incarcerated,” Bell said. “So, when I have these conversations with our guests here, they understand I’m coming from, I’m coming from where you’re at.”

Bell describes a community where each site is cleaned regularly, wellness checks are done once every hour and each resident has a caseworker, or care coordinator to help get their lives back on track. They also help with locating housing, as well as providing them assistance with physical or mental health issues, addiction, or getting documentation needed to secure a job. Residents have clean bathrooms that they can access at any time, as well as getting three meals a day. Residents have to sign in and out and check any weapons into a locked storage unit.

Urban Alchemy says it has a realistic approach when dealing with drug use within its sites.

“We do support sobriety and give resources pertaining to that,” Bell said. “But we do meet our guests where they’re at.”

“If you come in here and you’re not ready to have that conversation of sobriety, then what we’re going to do is we’re going to try to keep you alive, while you’re getting intoxicated or high,” Bell said.

But Urban Alchemy’s program has also had some problems. Chandler Watkins from our sister station in Portland, Oregon, covered that angle.

Neighbors of a small camp in North Portland had some mixed feelings about it. One concerned resident who didn’t wish to be identified said he hadn’t heard from anyone in the city government about the Safe Rest Village.

“On one hand it’s great to have the village set up and to move people into housing, but the city is just not engaged with neighbors at all on the process,” the person said. “There hasn’t been a single olive branch, so I think that that’s been tough.”

“You want to be able to have like a community buy-in and there hasn’t been a chance for that,” the concerned resident added.

On its website, the city of Portland states, “Our team has been working with the community since the announcement of this site as a Safe Rest Village. We communicate regularly with neighbors and stakeholders.”

Urban Alchemy contends the camps are doing well, claiming they don’t even need security guards because guests follow the rules.

But the LA/Portland program is still considered temporary housing, it’s not what experts consider a solution to permanent housing.

The Houston model

In Anchorage, there has been some progress on that front. Officials say there are more than 300 new units expected to be available between now and next year. Most are hotel rooms that were converted into studio apartments.

Like in Houston, some people in Anchorage have begun moving off the streets into long-term apartment housing.

“I was using meth and heroin and opiates and marijuana,” said Elizabeth Parish, who spent years living in Anchorage shelters before finding a stable place to live.

She’s now happy with her studio apartment, which is currently subsidized by a nonprofit.

“It has a full-size kitchen, a stove, refrigerator and even a dishwasher,” Parish said.

In Houston, a growing number of landlords are working with that city’s homeless coalition — placing formerly homeless people into real apartments.

“They’re very grateful when you ever move the homeless people, any of them, in any of your home[s],” Houston landlord Jamil Hasan said. “I have seen grown people cry, and they will say ‘thank you,’ like I am doing some miracle. I’m renting them a place and getting paid for it. There is not a favor. They’re not living for free. But they have been through so much.”

Hasan now rents more than 40 of his apartment units to people who were formerly homeless.

Houston’s aggressive approach to finding private landlords willing to rent to someone who was homeless is seen as key to that community’s success. Hasan even works with tenants who have criminal backgrounds and bad credit. He feels by integrating them into a broader community now, they’ll have a better chance of success in the future.

“When they see they are being treated just like other tenants who are paying from their pocket, [it] gives them the self-esteem that they need,” Hasan said. “They do not want to live in a place where everybody’s homeless. They want to live in a place where they are given the self, level of recognition as a human being, as others.”

Hasan receives rental vouchers from the city of Houston and other organizations that work through Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless. He leases each apartment for one year but will renew that lease if he has a good relationship with the tenant.

Zaletel says she doesn’t understand why Anchorage hasn’t already adopted Houston’s model.

“Good question, I don’t know. That’s where we want to go,” Zaletel said. “We should be continually and aggressively focused on; how do we move this individual to housing?”

Zaletel says the ACEH began a pilot program about a year ago that is similar to Houston’s model. The city of Houston allows a single coordinating organization to serve as the main distribution hub which distributes all funding that’s related to homeless services.

Zaletel hopes the pilot program will eventually grow and be adopted by Anchorage officials as a best practice in the city’s efforts to better address its homeless situation.