Fairview Recreation Center opens as additional homeless shelter

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – Amid a surging pandemic and a November cold snap, the Municipality of Anchorage is racing to find space to house a growing number of people who are experiencing homelessness.

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On Wednesday, 684 people needed a warm place to stay, according to Anchorage Homeless Coordinator Nancy Burke, marking an 18% increase since the beginning of September.

The pandemic has forced several shelters to operate at a reduced capacity, to allow for distancing. For instance, the Brother Francis Shelter capacity in the winter of 2019 was 240. Currently, it’s at 62.

The temporary emergency shelter inside the Sullivan Arena has a maximum capacity of 360, but has exceeded that count every night for the last month, Burke told members of the Anchorage Assembly Committee on Homelessness during a meeting on Wednesday.

“Last night that number was 407,” said Burke. “We drive to drive that number down by bringing on additional resources.”

Based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically for Anchorage, the city has been looking to move toward more non-congregate sheltering options. In October, the city had secured 70 area hotel rooms to help decompress the shelter at the Sullivan Arena.

Now, it has 127 hotel rooms. But that is still not enough.

Over the weekend, the city turned the Fairview Recreation Center into a congregate shelter, providing capacity for an additional 49 people.

“We’re having the conversation about what’s next, actively and it’ll be a mix of, you know, more non-congregate locations… the municipality will probably go out to bid for some more rooms, and then if we can’t keep up with it, we’ll do as we did with Fairview, we’ll find another spot to open,” Burke said during an interview Wednesday.

In October, Burke said the plan for winter was to decompress the Sullivan Arena by moving people into temporary non-congregate units, such as hotel rooms, then move those individuals into housing through a rapid-rehousing program, creating space to further alleviate crowding at the Sullivan Arena.

That is still the plan, she said Wednesday, but the demand has increased faster than they’ve been able to keep up with.

“The Sullivan Arena is running a full 40 spaces over what we want to see it at right now,” she said. “So then if we want to leave more space for new people coming in, you know, we’d like to see that number down around 320 so that we would have the capacity to flex as new people come in, but we’ve been consistently running over.”

Burke anticipates the number of people needing shelter will continue to increase. She believes some people seeking shelter this year have previously found other ways to get by, such as warming up in a business lobby or going into a hospital, options removed by the pandemic.

“The unknown is how many people may be new to homelessness because of the pandemic,” she said.

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