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Anchorage Assembly vote on $22.5M for homeless services locations pushed back to Wednesday

The delay comes after a massive turnout at the Anchorage Assembly's meeting Tuesday night
Attendees sit in the crowd of an Anchorage Assembly meeting held at the Loussac Library on July 14, 2020.
Attendees sit in the crowd of an Anchorage Assembly meeting held at the Loussac Library on July 14, 2020.(KTUU photo)
Published: Jul. 14, 2020 at 6:46 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage Assembly is considering several ordinances and resolutions, including a proposal that would allow for the purchase of four different Anchorage buildings to designate primarily to homeless services.

If passed, this particular ordinance would allocate approximately $22.5 million total - from both CARES Act funding as well as monies from the pending sale of ML&P - to go toward the purchase of Bean’s Cafe on 3rd Ave., to become a service engagement center; the old Alaska Club on Tudor near Old Seward, to be turned into a shelter and engagement center; the Golden Lion Hotel off 36th Ave., which would become an addiction treatment center; and the America’s Best Value Inn on Spenard, as a housing and resource center. The treatment center location would also be for public use for all of Anchorage.

The vote, however, will wait until Wednesday at the earliest as Tuesday’s meeting ended without public testimony being completed. A continued meeting is set to take place on Wednesday evening at the Assembly chambers beginning at 5 p.m. and starting with the last couple of items originally on Tuesday’s agenda.

The ordinance pushing for new locations for homeless services, AO 2020-66, was brought forth at the request of Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz by Assembly Chair Felix Rivera and members Meg Zalatel and Chris Constant. The move also follows municipal reports that last year, 7,901 people were served by Anchorage’s Homelessness Response System.

Also garnering the attention of testifiers was a separate ordinance, focused on zoning allowances, which was up for discussion Tuesday as and proved to be just as divisive of a topic. That ordinance would allow for expanded use of certain types of zones. Assembly members have said it has no connection to or bearing on AO 2020-66 - and would not impact or be impacted by the decision regarding that ordinance - but combined the two public testimony times Tuesday so that everyone was allowed a consecutive six minutes total, instead of three minutes for each topic.

Though the municipality maintains that “Anchorage can become a community where homelessness is always rare, brief, and a one-time occurrence,” as stated on its Addressing Homelessness website, the homeless services sites proposal has seen pushback from community members who live near the sites proposed for purchase, with the showing Tuesday evening largely in opposition to the proposal.

“The two biggest concerns that I’ve heard from most of my neighbors had to deal with safety,” said Anchorage Assembly Chair Felix Rivera. “How are we going to make sure when, or if facilities go in, are folks gonna still be safe in their neighborhoods?”

Attendees, both before and during the meeting, expressed such sentiments in their testimonies.

“I think it’s a disaster,” said Jamilia George, an Anchorage resident of more than 40 years. “It’s the wrong place. We’ll have traffic into the neighborhood, we already have migrant people in the neighborhood, we don’t want them there. They are not safe there.”

The municipality said the plans for the four options were developed with input from representatives with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, the local Homelessness Leadership Council, area businesses, housing providers, social service providers, and other stakeholders. George, however, who was one of the first in line to participate in Tuesday’s meeting, said a particular concern of hers is a “lack of public process.”

“There has been no process,” she said. “They’re trying to railroad it. That’s not the way to do it. And frankly, I don’t think the CARES [Act] money is supposed to be used to start a new business.”

Still, some attendees were and remain in favor of the proposal, citing a dire need for services across the Anchorage community.

“Most of what we’re interested in is diversifying the housing stock and diversifying economic opportunities for disadvantaged people,” said Sean Ryan, an Anchorage resident who resides in Fairview. “The average person out here – they’re just concerned about their property values, and they seem to want to frame the debate in terms of just preferring one form or another of warehousing.

“We’re looking at transforming that,” he said of the Assembly’s ordinance, “and giving tools to be able to live independent, self-directed lives to be productive citizens.”

Others simply encouraged finding a solution, but perhaps not as the Assembly has outlined.

Rabbi Yosef Greenberg of Anchorage, the second person to testify during the meeting over either ordinance on Tuesday, said he supported the group working toward a positive outcome but didn’t entirely back the ordinance as it is written.

“There is no question in anyone’s mind, it’s a noble cause,” he said. “We have to take care of the homeless. We will support it, we will donate, no question about it. But we have to do it the right way.”

Assemblyman Constant received immediate criticism for a question he posed to the rabbi shortly after his testimony Tuesday, citing an email submitted by someone else from the public that detailed an “idea” to deal with Anchorage’s homeless population: “‘Erect a large fence,‘” Constant read, “‘and if they venture to go outside of that area, take their dividend... This way, it provides for their needs and keeps all homeless people in one area.‘”

Constant then asked for Greenberg’s thoughts on the email.

“There is a way to do it,” Greenberg said in part. “The way is not putting them in a corner. There must be a good way and a pleasant way to do this. What is the way? I am not sure.”

After more back and forth, Greenberg then asked what the point of the question was.

“Why are you asking me about this email someone else sent you?” he said. “You’re trying to compare the Nazis to this? What are you trying to compare this to? It is disrespectful. I’m saying, this is not the right way. There are other ways to do it. Figure it out. That’s why you’re sitting there.”

Constant declined to comment after the meeting but stated multiple times that he planned on “making a public apology.”

Public comment on the ordinances from dozens more people was submitted both in person and via phone before the Assembly voted to adjourn the meeting at 11 p.m. The meeting will continue on Wednesday night, starting with several unaddressed items from Tuesday and then moving back to public testimony after that. Should the Assembly approved the ordinance, Rivera said, the next step would be moving to a bid process for operators.

“The request for proposals will go out to people who can run these facilities,” he said, “and see who is the best operator.”

Along with the continued meeting in the evening, the Committee on Homelessness is also scheduled to meet during the morning hours on Wednesday, July 15, and is expected to focus largely on a proposed alcohol tax.

Author’s note: A previous version of this article stated CARES Act money would fund the proposal focused on new homeless services locations. A large portion is also coming from the pending sale of ML&P. This has been emphasized above.

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