By DAN SULLIVAN, FORMER MAYOR OF ANCHORAGE
There has been extensive discussion over the last number of weeks regarding a plan put forth by the municipal administration for the purchase of four buildings which would be utilized for housing and treatment facilities for our ever growing homeless population.
The buildings include Beans Café off of 3rd Avenue, the Golden Lion Hotel on the corner of 36th Avenue and the New Seward Highway, the former Alaska Club facility on Tudor Road and Alaska’s Best Value Hotel in Spenard.
The Golden Lion Hotel is located adjacent to one of the highest traffic volume intersections in the state. Many have expressed legitimate concerns regarding the inherent danger of housing people with known substance abuse problems in such a high traffic area.
Just to the east of the hotel are large residential subdivisions, including Geneva Woods and College Village. The residents are rightly concerned about what may happen to the quality of life in their neighborhoods given the ever increasing level of crime attributed to some of the homeless population.
Similar concerns have been expressed by the residents and business owners near the proposed Tudor Road location, which is another high volume traffic area.
People testifying at the Assembly meetings have shared their horror stories of the vandalism, blatant disregard for private property and the fear felt by the owners and residents who have been threatened and accosted by the vagrants who wander through in various states of impairment.
These are not your typical NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) concerns, because the entire Anchorage community has seen what has happened in the Fairview neighborhood, including the large encampment that developed at the Brother Francis, Beans Café complex and the many years of property damage that the surrounding neighbors have endured from the habituates of these facilities.
Another area of concern is the lack of transparency in the development of this purchase plan. Apparently money from the federal CARES program will be the source of funds, although it is not clear that this is even a proper use of these funds. The way the proposal was put forth with the intent to bypass the Planning and Zoning Commission is also troublesome.
I believe there is a better solution. Out by Point Woronzof is the Salvation Army’s Clitheroe Center, a forty two bed facility that provides substance abuse treatment and recovery services. It has been successfully providing treatment for decades. Although the Salvation Army is a religious-based organization, their treatment is provided with a totally secular methodology.
The city owns thirty eight acres of undeveloped land surrounding the facility. With far less that the $22 million the mayor is proposing to spend buying buildings, we could expand and modernize Clitheroe to accommodate many more clients than their current capacity. Money from the recently passed alcohol tax could be used to help operational costs and I believe the Anchorage community would support a bond issue to pay for the expansion, leaving the CARES money for its intended purpose, helping businesses and employees affected by the pandemic.
Additionally, The Salvation Army also owns a building on East 48th Avenue that has been previously used as a treatment facility and has the capacity for 65 clients. It is now vacant and in need of repairs. There was an estimate provided a couple of years ago that the needed upgrades could be accomplished for around $1.5 million.
Apparently, the Salvation Army has presented these options to the municipality but were rebuffed. It makes no sense to be buying buildings that are ill suited for the mayor’s intended purpose, and without a defined operational plan, when there are existing facilities available that can be expanded and upgraded to accomplish the mission.
Former Assembly Chairman Dan Coffey recently wrote to the current Chair Felix Rivera and suggested the upgrade and expansion of the Clitheroe facility as well as utilizing the eighteen acre Native Hospital site on 3rdAvenue for additional housing. The municipality also owns this property
When I was in office, we would survey the camp population as we cleaned them up and discovered that about 50 percent of the illegal campers had other housing options but preferred their lifestyle of inhabiting and despoiling our public spaces.
To address this, Mr. Coffey also suggested re-establishing the Municipal Court to deal with the homeless population that are committing various infractions, including trespass, public indecency, petty theft, vandalism, panhandling in traffic, etc.
As he pointed out, it is a Class A misdemeanor to illegally camp in a park or public space, punishable for up to one year confinement. For repeat offenders, the court could confine them to one of the treatment facilities where there is a chance of rehabilitation. Mr. Rivera responded to Mr. Coffey’s thoughtful suggestion by saying that they’ve looked at extending services to Clitheroe and it didn’t pencil out. I don’t believe that to be true.
As for the Municipal Court, he said he and Assembly member Zalatel did not want to criminalize the homeless. He clearly doesn’t understand the difference between those who would welcome housing and those who will not voluntarily give up their dangerous lifestyle; dangerous to both them and Anchorage residents.
None of us should have to avoid our trails and parks because we don’t know who is in the woods and what condition they are in.
The bottom line is there are solutions other than spending $22 million of CARES funds. What seems to be lacking is the will of our elected officials to use and to expand the tools already available, which would be a win-win for the homeless and the Anchorage taxpayers.
Dan Sullivan was mayor of Anchorage from 2009-2015.