By MAYOR DAVE BRONSON AND ALEXIS JOHNSON
Wednesday’s weather was a strong reminder that winter is always nearby. Snowfall in May seemed like an impossible feat, yet less than 48 hours after the closing of Anchorage’s largest low-barrier shelter – temps dropped below freezing and it began to snow. At the time, an estimated 800 people were living unsheltered outdoors. We can and should do better.
This is a warning call before next winter; we need year-round shelter. Cities and towns across the country struggle to provide adequate shelter to those in need, particularly during the winter months. However, the problem of homelessness does not disappear once the snow melts and the temperatures rise. We see this right now with the closure of the Sullivan, the need is higher than ever. Year-round, there is a lack of low-barrier shelter for those experiencing homelessness in Anchorage.
Low-barrier shelters provide a place to sleep and have basic amenities without many of the restrictions that traditional shelters have. For example, low-barrier shelters may allow pets, couples, and people with active substance use disorders. They may also have fewer restrictions or barriers on the time of day when individuals can come and go or allow people to bring in their own belongings.
Unfortunately, many cities do not have enough low-barrier shelters to meet the needs of their homeless populations, Anchorage is no different. This leaves many people on the streets year-round, vulnerable to the elements and without a safe place to sleep at night. The consequences of this lack of shelter can be devastating, leading to illness, injury, and even death.
Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic made the need for low-barrier shelters even more urgent. Social distancing guidelines had forced many shelters to reduce their capacity, leaving more people without a place to sleep. The pandemic also highlighted the need for more resources to support those experiencing homelessness, including access to healthcare and mental health services.
One solution to the lack of low-barrier shelter is the Tudor/Elmore Navigation Center and Shelter, which is currently a project that has been halted. If constructed, this new facility will provide at least 150 beds for people experiencing homelessness, as well as case management, job training, and other supportive services. It will be open year-round and will operate on a low-barrier model, with few restrictions on who can stay.
We have an opportunity before next winter to reimagine what low barrier shelter looks like in Anchorage. Year after year, we continue to learn from the mistakes of our past. With winter 2023/24 right around the corner, let’s take the wins with the losses, and refocus our sights on what shelter looks like this year.
The Tudor/Elmore Navigation Center and Shelter is an important step forward in addressing homelessness in Anchorage. However, it is just one piece of a larger puzzle. Providing year-round low-barrier shelters is not a simple task, but it is a necessary one. It requires collaboration between government agencies, non-profit organizations, and community members. It also requires a willingness to think creatively and to look for solutions beyond the traditional shelter model.
One example of this kind of innovative thinking is the tiny home village model, which has been successfully implemented in several cities. These villages provide small, private dwellings for individuals experiencing homelessness, along with access to communal spaces and supportive services. This model has proven to be effective at reducing homelessness and improving the health and well-being of those who live in these villages.
Ultimately, we must recognize that homelessness is not just a winter problem. It is a year-round crisis that demands our attention and our resources. Providing low-barrier shelter is a crucial step in addressing this crisis and helping those who are most vulnerable in our communities. It is time for our leaders to act and make year-round low barrier shelter a priority.
Mayor Dave Bronson was elected to lead Alaska’s largest city in 2021; Alexis Johnson is the municipality’s homeless coordinator.