In the nonpartisan race for Anchorage mayor, homelessness is a top priority in several candidates’ platforms.
With 15 candidates, opponents say they will take varying — and in some cases, quite different — approaches to the city’s homelessness crisis.
Some candidates, including former Anchorage municipal manager Bill Falsey and former Assembly member Bill Evans, have specific ideas to address the visible aspects of homelessness, such as homeless camps.
At the East Anchorage Mayoral Forum this week, Falsey criticized the city’s past response to cleaning up camps and said that he has been “very frustrated with the municipality’s pace of progress.”
“What we have done today has been largely futile,” Falsey said. “Police officers go to an illegal camp and they say, ‘Move along, or 10 days from now the parks department will throw away your stuff.’ And so folks pick up on the ninth day and move to a different area and the cycle repeats.”
Falsey said the city should pair rapid camp abatement with storing the property of homeless individuals at a shelter site.
With that system, the city could quickly take people in camps, and their possessions, to a shelter where they would be connected to services.
“We can really start to then move the needle,” he said.
Evans has also said that the city needs a facility to store the property of individuals who are homeless. There is a law that requires the city keep their property for a certain amount of time, and good storage facility would allow the city to quickly clean up camps, he said during a candidate forum last month.
Anchorage will not be able to grow its economy until it cleans up its homelessness problem, he said.
“The first thing you have to do is you have to get to people off every street corner in town. You’re not going to get people to decide that Anchorage is the place they want to bring their business or their capital, or move to, if they drive into Anchorage and see people on every street corner begging,” Evans said in an interview with the Daily News. “It’s a bad look, it’s not the sign of a successful city.”
Evans said the city also needs enough housing options, including congregate shelters, to keep people off the streets.
Last summer, the city moved forward with a controversial plan to purchase buildings for homeless and treatment services.
Candidate and current Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who represents East Anchorage, has supported that plan.
To get to the “root causes” of homelessness, the city needs a wide array of housing options, treatment and behavioral health services, including transitional housing, long-term supportive housing and shelters, he said.
Non-congregate shelters and housing, such as housing voucher programs often work better than traditional shelters, he said.
“Where people can go and get their own apartment or get a hotel room and get a locking door, and be stabilized — that is how we get out of our current situation,” Dunbar said last month at a homelessness and housing forum.
Dunbar said he thinks that the city’s shelter at Sullivan Arena, set up last spring as an emergency shelter during the pandemic, has served as a successful new model for connecting people to services in one place.
As the pandemic subsides, the city will need to create a new hub for connecting people to public and private social services and create new shelter and housing options, he said.
However, criticism over the city’s handling of homelessness during the pandemic has grown. One of the most vocal critics of the city’s building purchases is candidate Dave Bronson, who testified to the Anchorage Assembly over his concerns with its plan.
“We have a serious vagrancy and homeless problem. Crime is growing on our streets. Our local government seems absolutely out of control,” Bronson said at the East Anchorage forum.
Bronson has said he sees root causes in drug and alcohol addiction and untreated mental illness, as well as a lack of affordable housing.
Many people without homes, including families and children, are being helped by services in the city, he said.
The actual “vagrancy problem,” as Bronson called it, is just a few hundred people on the streets, he said. He sees that as the biggest issue for businesses and residents, he said.
“We have to get them to what is called the decision point. They have got to get to the point where they decide whether they’re going to rehabilitate and detox in a jail cell — as terrible as that is — or they’re in a detox in an effective and provable treatment program like Catholic Social Services or Salvation Army,” Bronson said during a forum on housing and homelessness last month.
Candidate Mike Robbins, Republican House District 26 chairman, also does not support the city’s effort to purchase buildings for homeless and treatment services.
“I am not going to increase the size of government by increasing the bureaucracy to establish the Department of Homelessness,” Robbins said during an interview.
At a debate hosted by the Alaska Young Republicans last month, Robbins said that he would also better organize the various entities in the city working on homelessness and get everyone “pulling in the same direction.”
The city needs to both address root causes of homelessness and enforce the laws about illegal camping, he said.
“We’re going to have to enforce the law. We’re going to have to use compassion. We’re going to have to get our arms around these folks, we’re going to have to try to figure out what is it that’s causing them to live in a camp,” Robbins said. “Because I don’t know one person that wants to live in a camp at 20 below or at 70 above.”
Candidate George Martinez, another candidate for mayor, said he believes in an approach that pulls together the resources of the city and community.
He said during the East Anchorage forum that he would support programs that give individuals without homes “daily dignity jobs” and support programs that connect them to wraparound resources.
“Every program and every policy should be focused on helping people get on pathways of dignity, respect and independence,” Martinez said.
He said that as mayor, he would help the city organize with community partners to increase resources and tailor programs to meet the needs of the city’s homeless population.
“There are organizations with their hands raised today saying we have 20 bed facilities and we want to be helpful. They can’t get the return phone call from the municipality or from the policymakers, because they’re not in the program that we’re investing in today. So I think we need to be very flexible,” Martinez said.