Health department receives go-ahead to expand capacity at Midtown winter shelter

Health department receives go-ahead to expand capacity at Midtown winter shelter
Published: Nov. 14, 2023 at 6:17 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Emergency cold weather shelters are already reporting to the Anchorage Health Department that they are at or near capacity this winter season.

But the health department said there are still hundreds of people on the waitlist for shelter.

On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly approved a request for the health department to expand capacity at the old Solid Waste Services facility in Midtown from 150 beds to 200 beds.

Housing and Homeless Coordinator Alexis Johnson said the reasoning behind the request is there are more than 350 people waiting to be housed while the city’s three shelters are at roughly 96% capacity.

Additionally, Johnson said there were four deaths reported last week involving unsheltered individuals.

“We do not know the cause of death. That’s something that the State of Alaska medical examiner would have, and so we don’t know if it’s due to exposure or whether it’s due to overdose or, you know, some other outlier,” she said.

The request passed the Assembly with very little resistance, but Assembly member Daniel Volland did raise some concerns. He asked if the operator would be able to run the congregate shelter at the SWS building effectively with the increased capacity.

He said at the end of the day. the homeless are Anchorage’s neighbors and the Assembly and municipality have a “moral obligation” to take care of its neighbors.

“The reality is, we do need to bring folks off the street into shelter where they can be warm. You know, we’ve had a number of folks die and I think part of that is cold exposure, and so we’re in a really tough spot,” Volland said. “We need to be able to get more community members housed.”

Henning Inc., which is running operations at the SWS building, said the only difficulty its clients have had is the lack of nearby stores.

“So the food source for these guys is kind of small. They have to travel a long way to get some food,” said Crystal Abbott, the director of operations for Henning.

She added clients of the facility do receive three meals a day from a food service provider.

Abbot concluded by saying said the facility cannot expand capacity beyond 200.

“I think the only obstacles that we will have is running more shower time since there’s only one female shower and two male showers. We’ll just have to run multiple showers for each sex,” Abbott said.

Now not everyone is thrilled about the SWS facility expanding its capacity.

A manager who did not want to be named or on camera said his business has had issues with homeless individuals wandering in and disturbing customers since the facility opened at the end of last month.

Additionally, a community council member who wanted to remain anonymous said she has concerns about public safety with the added expansion.

Abbott said they have had to throw some clients out, but added it does not happen very often.

“It’s cold outside. They don’t want to lose their bed,” she said.

Going forward, the health department is working with Graceful Touch Transitional Services Inc. to open a 50-person warming station in Fairview. The agency works to connect individuals with medical, social and educational services.

“That’s one of the things that we’ve been having problems with is finding new additional operators. When one came forward to operate a warming facility or work in communication, we’re going to jump on it,” Johnson said.

As far as housing, she said the city has a new location, which is the Barratt Inn. Johnson said the facility has 96 beds in total, and she believes 26 have been turned on so far. They will continue to fill it over the next few months.

As far as new hotel conversions and housing go, she said that’s something the Assembly is currently working to address.

“I would say new housing is probably in the works. They [Assembly] also allocated $1.3 million to the Anchorage Affordable Housing and Land Trust to convert dilapidated or old buildings that need rehab, to turn them online for housing,” Johnson said.

Abbott added the community could help clients at the SWS building by donating non-perishable foods, blankets, and feminine hygiene products.