Brennan: Homeless scheme has merit

By Tom Brennan |

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s plan to buy buildings to house and treat the homeless has many of the neighbors up in arms.

 The neighbors say they worry about those at the mostly empty commercial buildings bringing new crime problems to their areas. You can’t blame them for that. The so-called homeless have far more than lack of a roof going for them. They are people with mental health problems and addictions to drugs and alcohol, the folks most likely to pass out on lawns and sleep in public places. 

The uncharitable among us used to call them “bums,” a most unfortunate and derogatory term that not all deserved. I say so-called homeless because having no place to live is not their most notable feature. It’s those mental and addiction difficulties that keep them either too broke or too problematic to handle a rental apartment. 

Some people suggest that we should buy them tickets and put them on flights to Seattle. The problem with that notion is that Seattle is quite likely to send them back accompanied by their own problem people. Anchorage has about 1,300 homeless folk but Seattle has more than 11,000. The rain city could supply us with enough addicts to keep Anchorage and environs in hock for housing and treatment for many years to come.

Much of the problem seems to stem from the decision many years ago to close many of the dedicated mental-health treatment facilities in Alaska and the other states when federal funding was slashed. That left the 47-bed Alaska Psychiatric Institute as the only hospital here dedicated for that purpose. Full-service hospitals in Palmer, Fairbanks and Juneau also dedicate a limited number of beds for people in mental health crises. Historically, when the treatment facilities closed their patients often wound up on the streets.

The problem in this area became high-profile this spring when the pandemic prompted the city to use Sullivan Arena and Ben Boeke Ice Arena as temporary housing and dining facility for the homeless under social-distancing requirements. Those at Ben Boeke have since been moved out but the Sullivan is still occupied.

Berkowitz’ scheme to buy four unused properties was a surprise approach. He proposes to have the city use at least a portion of expected federal funding to purchase the 100-room Best Western/Golden Lion Inn on 36th Avenue in Midtown for a housing and treatment facility and the 150-room America’s Best Value property in Spenard. Some of the space would be used to provide office facilities for those treating the homeless.

The plan would also involve acquiring the former Alaska Club building off Old Seward Highway, which could accommodate 125 people overnight and also serve as a day-time activity center. And it would include buying Bean’s Cafe on the north side of Downtown Anchorage. Bean’s would be converted to a daytime “engagement center,” which presumably means a place to hang out and get active.

Worries by the neighbors are understandable and perhaps justified though hopefully the Berkowitz scheme will include measures to minimize problems from users of the buildings. But the mayor’s plan could be a way to make major improvements in a long-time Anchorage problem and should certainly make the lives of the homeless much better.

The deal is far from sealed as yet. The Assembly met for several nights last week. They originally planned on one session but the large number of people who showed up — and the ongoing distancing requirements of the pandemic — caused it to be continued over three sessions.

Berkowitz says he plans to get the public involved in the project process. He told reporters last week that the city faces hard choices but choices must be made. Even not making them is a choice itself with consequences that many of us consider unacceptable.

The mayor’s idea has a lot of merit. Providing treatment options and places to live for our street people could make it much easier to deal with the problems that put them on the street. And helping solve their problems could help solve some for the rest of us.

10 Responses to Brennan: Homeless scheme has merit

  1. Dan Sullivan July 21, 2020 at 4:22 pm

    Put the money towards expanding and upgrading the Clitheroe Center out by Point Woronzof. Far enough from neighbors and liquor stores and a good place for a healing environment. Remember, when we cleared out camps during my administration, we took social workers and surveyed who had which needs and tried to connect them to services. 50% had other housing options but liked the rebel lifestyle. Without stronger laws on trespassing and involuntary commitment, all of which are fought vigorously by the ACLU, that portion of the ‘homeless’ will never see improvement. With a bad economy in rural Alaska, more folks are moving into urban centers and statistics show they are a large part of the homeless population, so the problem is not getting better.

  2. John London July 20, 2020 at 8:54 pm

    Lets be done with all of this bull, hold a new Woodstock North – hand out free money, free music and free love and end up where we are already as a society.

  3. karen July 20, 2020 at 12:46 pm

    This poorly outlined plan seems to continue the same programs that have failed in the past; it simply relocates them.
    Purchasing these properties (and bypassing the planning zoning commission process) with money that is not even assured, is fiscally irresponsible and leaves alot of unanswered questions and taxpayers are rightfully concerned. Further, using CARES money to fund existing programs for drug-abuse, alcoholism and homelessness, may be considered misuse and reportable as fraud.

  4. karen July 20, 2020 at 12:16 pm

    It would seem this poorly outlined plan intends to continue to follow the same unsuccessful models that have exacerbated the problem to the level it is today. Simply moving the shelter to a new location does little to change anything – just spreads the mess out further. Future funding for these projects is not sure, and purchase of these properties quite probably a misuse of the CARES money. Also, the MLP money is not in the bank, and probably should be saved for future disasters, pandemics, and to shore up our infrastructure. These are serious financial considerations that we taxpayers must take into account. We will pay for all of this, and would like to at least have more information and a modicum of assurance of success without adding increasing risks to residents and businesses.

  5. Ponderer July 20, 2020 at 9:27 am

    Housing First has proven an inadequate and oversimplified approach, effectively burning what few bridges may exist between those suffering and those observing that are nonetheless open to supporting some kind of effective assistance. It would be helpful to see what other scafolding is planned, how much it will take to sustain and the metrics that will be used to track effectiveness – not to mention any evidence of real success elsewhere.

    The sufferers and the observers are not monolithic, but incredibly complex groups for which any effective approach must be a Swiss Army version. Government has a lousy track recordwhen it comes to complex problems, and is incapable of loving anyone. Show me a thorough plan that relies on sectarian and private non-profit efforts, and does not further the homless industrial complex funded solely by government – and I can listen.

  6. Morrigan July 20, 2020 at 9:14 am

    Might be fun to see what happens when lots of folks report possibly unlawful use of China flu money for bum housing by calling the Treasury’s Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Hotline at 800-359-3898, or writing to:
    Brian D. Miller, Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery (SIGPR), United States Treasury, Office of Inspector General 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. Room 4436, Washington, DC 20220.
    Don’t be surprised if these proposals somehow make it on the ballot so they can be enshrined by Anchorage’s easily corruptible mail-in voting system.
    Everybody wins… Assembly blames voters, voters blame themselves, government gets bigger, contractors make serious money… imagine what’s coming after a mob of brand-new voters are “helped” to register, vote, and mail their ballots from their brand-new physical addresses.
    And totally best of all, taxpayers can’t do a bloody thing about it, except pay for it
    … or secede right along with Eaglexit.

  7. Will Gay July 20, 2020 at 8:48 am

    With the closing of businesses and the impending commercial real estate foreclosures why buy these buildings? Are friends of friends once again getting bailed out? This option seems rushed, too much so. The 36th and Seward is a big mistake. High speed traffic and the ruin of a nice neighborhood.

  8. Marge July 20, 2020 at 7:41 am

    The Mayor’s idea has merit, however, where is his detailed plan.
    Take a look at what happened in San Diego when they decided to put the homeless in empty hotels. Tossing money to buy many facilities to house the homeless is not solving the problem.
    However, in my opinion, it may place some money in someone’s pocket.

  9. Elizabeth July 20, 2020 at 7:33 am

    Treatment being the key word, and then there needs to be willingness to accept treatment. Simply housing with no strings attached will not work. San Francisco has attempted same approach in different forms, most recently using the empty hotels to house homeless individuals, and it is not working. There needs to be desire and motivation for recovery, and leaving a destructive lifestyle, otherwise it just becomes more enabling. There also should be expectation and the proverbial ‘skin in the game’ from the ‘client’.

    Great book to read – Toxic Charity, by Robert Lupton.

  10. Beth Slater July 19, 2020 at 10:51 am

    Didn’t the city spend millions of dollars in UAA’s Alaska Airline Center to help house COVID19 patients? As far as I know, the building has never been used. Why not use that building for help the homeless right now while the city figures out their future response? That building already has beds, privacy screens, bathrooms, and showers. The University isn’t planning to open sports this fall, and taxpayers will continue to subsidize the heating for the building whether it’s used or not, so why not use it? That building is also close to two hospitals (ANMC and Providence).


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