How did Anchorage underestimate the need for winter homeless shelter space?

Need is more than double initial estimates
How did Anchorage underestimate the need for winter homeless shelter space
Published: Oct. 26, 2023 at 5:05 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - With further abatements of homeless camps outside of the one at Third Avenue and Ingra Street halted until the municipality finds more space to house homeless people, Anchorage officials say they’re now dealing with more than double the number of people they expected to seek winter shelter.

In May, the numbers were tallied from the most recent winter point-in-time count of homeless people in Anchorage. An unexpectedly large number of unsheltered people were counted: 335. That was more than double the number of people counted the year before.

The city’s Director of Homelessness and Housing Alexis Johnson attributed the higher number to a more robust counting effort, rather than an increase in the numbers of homeless people.

At the end of May, the last homeless person left Sullivan Arena, closing up last year’s biggest winter shelter.

Planning subsequently turned to this winter, and in July, Mayor Dave Bronson announced the Sullivan Arena would be fixed up and returned to normal operations. It would not be used again as a shelter and other plans would be announced soon.

In mid-August, the Bronson administration said it would concentrate on finding mostly non-congregate housing, meaning no Sullivan Arena-type mass shelter this winter. The city estimated around 400 people would want winter housing.

How did city officials reach that number? The Bronson administration says data provided by the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness (ACEH) and other sources showed more than 700 unsheltered were living in outdoor public spaces, but that about 300 were being moved into converted hotel rooms such as The Golden Lion Hotel on East 36th Avenue and the Seward Highway, and The Barratt Inn on Spenard Road.

In September, Johnson reiterated that between 400 and 500 people were expected to apply for winter shelter and later that month, she announced the city was close to publicizing the details on 574 winter beds, more than enough to handle the expected demand.

On Oct. 9, the city revealed the details of the plan. Room for 100 people at the Alex Hotel, 274 at the Aviator Hotel, and 150 beds at a congregate shelter at the old Solid Waste Services facility.

On Oct. 16, abatement notices were posted at the Third Avenue and Ingra Street encampment and homeless residents started moving into the two hotels.

However, the solid waste location was not yet ready. It’s now expected to open next week.

While the system seemed to run smoothly those first few days, something happened to the predictions. They were wrong.

More than 700 people had signed up for winter housing. The number grew over the next few days to nearly 1,000 on the official shelter list.

Johnson said the data had been wrong.

“We receive our information from an external party — a third party — and how the numbers were calculated was that when the Sullivan Arena closed and the Aviator and the Alex closed in April, there were 775 people seeking shelter. That was the data we were given to us,” Johnson said. “At the time, we had 310 new housing units coming online. So of course, we deduct all the people who were living in shelter now going into housing, and so the number came out to about 400.”

The primary provider of data on homelessness is the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness (ACEH). In a statement, the coalition says its recommendation to create a system to keep up with changing numbers was not accepted by the city.

“ACEH provides data about people experiencing homelessness to assist policymakers and the government, as well as to inform the public through our dashboard,” the statement read. “We advise that policy be based on data, previous year’s utilization of services and best practices.

“ACEH will continue to provide advice and data to the Municipality of Anchorage and the Anchorage Health Department at any planning stage, and when we are asked to help develop contingency plans. This year’s cold weather shelter plan is significantly better than previous years, both in terms of timing, housing focus and the reliance on both non-congregate and congregate shelter beds.”

The coalition said it suggested to the city the use of a municipal-wide waitlist for emergency shelters and even offered to maintain it, adding that it has been a tool that other cities have used.

“We believe that this is the best way to allocate a limited resource, and to identify an accurate need for shelter beds, as well as how to prioritize bed placement,” a coalition spokesperson said.

But Phil Cannon, president of the Mountain View Community Council, says it was obvious to him and other community leaders two months before the winter shelters opened that by whatever means the city got its numbers, those numbers were wrong.

“In a matter of 15 or 20 minutes, we were able to say, ‘We think there’s at least 800 people camping in Anchorage, just in district 1, maybe,” Cannon said. “And the notion that the city would be unprepared for the number of people seeking shelter is a little bit astounding, you know.”

Cannon says officials didn’t listen.

“We said then, we think your numbers are too low, and they said, ‘Well, we’ll see,” Cannon recounted.

Johnson said the city is doing its best now to move past the wrong numbers as officials work to find hundreds of more beds for the winter.

“I think that the Anchorage Health Department is only as good as the data that’s provided to us. And so, I would say that initially we were given bad data. And I think now we have to work to mitigate the problems that we’re seeing and to really focus on how to get more people into shelter because it is going to be a cold winter. And we do know that there’s 992 people currently seeking shelter,” Johnson said.