Seeking Shelter/Seeking Solutions: Would Mayor Bronson’s navigation center have helped end homelessness in Anchorage?

Bronson touted a navigation center as a solution to homelessness, but other cities only consider them part of a larger plan
The debate over exactly how Mayor Dave Bronson’s proposed navigation center would serve the homeless population of Anchorage is dividing the community.
Published: Aug. 30, 2023 at 6:32 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The debate over exactly how Mayor Dave Bronson’s proposed navigation center would serve Anchorage’s homeless population has divided the community. Although many agreed that a navigation center would have served an important role when it comes to getting people off the streets and sheltered, in the long run it wouldn’t have provided what most experts who deal with the homeless crisis consider to be “permanent housing.”

The proposed navigation center near Tudor and Elmore Roads broke ground in 2022, but after being stalled by political pushback, was never finished.

Now, one week after the Anchorage Assembly voted not to move forward with construction, it appears the plan is dead — at least for the foreseeable future.

“We spent $161 million on homelessness in the city of Anchorage, and we don’t have a shelter to show for it,” Bronson said.

With only some concrete being poured and the purchase of a tent-like structure that’s still in storage, there’s not much to show for it. Bronson has supported the construction of a navigation center since he took office in July 2021. Then, after hiring a contractor to begin building it without Assembly budget approval, his plan came to a screeching halt.

“In the end that’s just a prison by another name,” Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said.

Constant says he doesn’t support the mayor’s navigation center vision.

“What we don’t need is a thousand-person mass shelter in any neighborhood in this town,” Constant said.

But Bronson points to the city of Reno, Nev. as an example of how a navigation center can function properly.

“It works very well and the homeless challenges, problems, are greatly diminished in Reno,” Bronson said. “But at the end of the day, you can have a very good facility, and if you manage it poorly, you’ll have very bad outcomes.”

While officials in charge of the Reno project claim success, the $70 million price tag has sparked some controversy. The cost of that operation was split between taxpayer money and charitable grants. Despite the cost, the Reno navigation center there continues to grow.

Alaska’s News Source’s sister station in Reno, KOLO, has covered the situation there and reports that phase three of the Nevada Cares was recently approved by the Washoe County Commission on a 3-2 vote.

But some homeless advocates in Reno say the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“It’s really ridiculous to spend that much when there’s not enough services at the shelter in the first place,” homeless advocate Katie Calling said.

Calling argues there are other shelter models in town that better support the unhoused population.

“There’s Crossroads and there’s Our Place, and they’re less than half of the per-cost per-bed of the Cares campus, but their model and their outcomes are way better,” Calling said.

Despite the controversy, phase three will move forward by constructing an intake center, which includes a security checkpoint, a nurse’s station, and staff offices. In a statement, the county said in part, “Washoe County is proudly working toward zero homelessness in our region. This means investing in programs, services, and housing. And we know it may sound expensive on the front end, but we are leveraging partnerships and grants to alleviate the costs.”

County Commissioner Mariluz Garcia spoke highly of the Cares Campus program.

“Outcomes are impressive. We’re seeing the right things go up, tripled permanent housing placements,” Garcia said.

But that permanent housing plan in Reno is not something Bronson wants to see replicated for the city of Anchorage.

“I don’t want to be part of that,” Bronson said. “I don’t think the taxpayers should be part of that.”

Meg Zaletel is the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. She also doesn’t support the mayor’s plan to use the navigation center as a large-scale temporary shelter.

“Any low-barrier shelter needs to follow the best practices, and best practices are small and housing-focused,” Zaletel said. “And so far, I’ve not seen any operations, plans or any specificity to suggest that that’s what’s being proposed.”

During a visit to Houston, officials told Alaska’s News Source that their navigation center is only used to transition people off the streets and into permanent housing.

“The solution to homelessness and the solution to encampments is housing,” Houston’s advisor on homeless initiatives Marc Eichenbaum said. “The navigation center is just a tool to help us carry it off quicker and more efficiently.”

Eichenbaum says Houston has streamlined its model after years of struggling to find a solution to homelessness.

“You’re doing it backwards if you create a housing navigation center without housing,” Eichenbaum said. “Then it just turns into a glorified, long-term shelter where you’re warehousing people and it gets full very quickly and it’s costly to do and then you have to keep on building new shelters that no neighborhood wants.”

Regardless, Bronson remains laser-focused on his navigation center. He says it could serve as a long-term solution to the problems in Anchorage.

“We have people that have lived in Brother Francis shelter for 20 years,” Bronson said.

“If the mayor’s argument of why we need a thousand-person tent is because people are going to stay there and have stayed there for years, he’s missing the mark,” Constant said. “The mark is, break the cycle.”

“The goal for the navigation center is 60 days or less,” said Eichenbaum, about Houston’s efforts.

But Bronson feels a navigation center would demonstrate that the city has finally made progress on ending the homeless problems plaguing Anchorage.

“Our goal, process-wise, is to manage it intensively to the point that the, that the public, the taxpayer, thinks we have solved it,” Bronson said.

Since there is no long-term agreement currently on homeless policy in Anchorage and with winter approaching, Bronson recently proposed purchasing airline tickets and flying homeless people out of state. He says without a navigation center, he’s forced to take desperate measures like these.

“So, what do I do? So, I’m doing this crazy stuff, like just trying to get people on an airplane,” Bronson said.

Zaletel feels the mayor is missing the point — since finding people permanent places to live right here in Anchorage — is the real solution.

“We, as a community, need to do a little bit better job at braiding and leveraging the funding we have so that we’re really making sure that we’re moving all dollars in the same direction,” Zaletel said. “Very much like the Houston model, where it really comes out of one organization, and everyone’s agreed to pull in that direction.”

The tent-like structure municipality purchased is currently being stored in a warehouse in Tacoma, Washington, and is costing taxpayers $5,000 per month. The mayor’s office said in an email that “We are actively working to determine the next steps on the navigation center facility. No final decisions have been made at this time.”