Tom Brennan

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’ 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.

Tom Brennan is an Anchorage columnist and author of five books. He was a reporter/columnist for The Anchorage Times and an editor and columnist at The Voice of The Times.

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