Anchorage Assembly rejects proposed rules for homeless camps and criminal charge for camping violations

Apr. 19—The Anchorage Assembly voted down a measure that would have put new size limits on homeless encampments and granted the city more power to tear down camps, as some members had questions about its legality and worried it could essentially ban homeless residents from large areas of the city.

Assembly members at a special meeting on Thursday also rejected a controversial proposal from Mayor Dave Bronson that would have added a criminal misdemeanor charge for camping and prohibited it altogether in numerous locations.

And they turned down a push from Bronson to pay for shipping to Anchorage the city's prefabricated Sprung Structure, which is currently stored out of state. Bronson and a local nonprofit homeless service organization are attempting to resurrect the mayor's proposal to construct a mass shelter in East Anchorage, a project the Assembly halted in 2022.

In one of two measures approved by the Assembly on Thursday, the city laid the groundwork to create "designated safe parking areas" for homeless people living in their vehicles. The other measure passed was a resolution that calls for the Bronson administration to coordinate with property owners to create allowed private camping locations and establish a registry.

The municipality is expecting a surge in unsheltered homelessness as emergency winter homeless sheltering winds down over the coming weeks.

Though the state has included in its proposed budget $4 million to keep one of the city's three emergency winter shelters open for the rest of the year, whether lawmakers will keep the funding in the budget is uncertain.

City officials proposed several of the measures in an effort to reduce the public health and safety issues that cropped up in and around several large encampments last summer.

Proposed rules for homeless camps fail

One of those measures would have limited homeless encampments to 25 tents and makeshift shelter structures, among several other proposed rules.

It failed in a 6-4 vote on Thursday following a lengthy debate and a few failed attempts from Assembly members to postpone the vote until May. (Members had previously postponed a vote on it.)

Assembly members who voted in favor are: Scott Myers, George Martinez, Zac Johnson, Karen Bronga, Daniel Volland and Randy Sulte. Those who voted against it are: Assembly Chair Christopher Constant and members Felix Rivera, Anna Brawley, and Kameron Perez-Verdia. An ordinance must get seven votes in favor in order to pass.

Several Assembly members on Thursday said they needed more time and information to assess the potential impacts of the ordinance, which would also have banned camping within 10 blocks or 1 mile of any licensed homeless shelter.

Other Assembly members and Bronson officials were frustrated with the measure's failure.

In a media statement Thursday, Bronson said he is "disappointed by the outcome" of the vote. The proposal sought to make "crucial amendments" to city code in order to "tackle the pressing challenges posed by homeless encampments," the mayor's office said.

Officials have pushed to set new rules before shelters close to make homeless people aware of where they can and cannot camp ahead of time.

"We need structure. And we need to have rules in place before people leave the shelter," Assembly member Karen Bronga said. "And that's not saying anything against our people who are experiencing homelessness. It's just reality. They need that idea of what we're going to expect. To abate them one place to the other because they didn't know is really quite cruel."

The Bronson administration had asserted that the city could legally dismantle camps that break the rules proposed in the measure, even without shelter beds to offer campers.

That concerned some Assembly members, because two civil rights rulings by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have largely protected homeless residents' right to sleep on public property when there isn't space in shelters. Bronson has said the rulings, known as Martin v. Boise and the Grants Pass ruling, have "paralyzed" the city's ability to address the homelessness crisis.

In September, Anchorage and multiple other U.S. cities called on the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Grants Pass ruling, and arguments in the case are set to begin next week.

Assembly Chair Christopher Constant, who wanted to postpone the vote, said even though municipal attorneys had voiced assurances about the legality of the measure, members need to see a signed legal analysis before approving it.

"We don't have legal analysis provided to us that demonstrates that this is in fact constitutional under the current regime — let alone what's coming in a month," he said, referring to the anticipated decision from the Supreme Court.

The chief of police also needs to weigh in on the implications for police enforcement, including about how police would handle it and the staffing levels the department would need, Constant said.

He and Assembly member Anna Brawley voiced concern over the potential impact of essentially banning homeless residents from broad swaths of the city. They wanted to see a detailed map of Anchorage and the areas that would be impacted by the rules, especially putting a 1-mile radius around shelters.

"That can encompass entire neighborhoods or entire community council areas," Brawley said.

Although the ordinance failed, Assembly member Felix Rivera said he has called for attorneys to draft a new version for a vote next month. It will include three key components, including limiting the size of encampments to 25 tents and banning camping near any licensed homeless shelter, he said.

The new version will again propose to reduce the length of time the city must wait to clear a camp after posting an abatement notice from 15 days to 10, Rivera said. Current city code allows a 10-day notice for clearing a "zone or campsite area."

Bronson's proposal that would have criminalized camping in numerous locations around the city, including all of downtown, failed in an 7-2 vote. Members Brawley, Bronga, Constant, Johnson, Martinez, Rivera and Volland voted to quash the proposal.

They said the proposal directly contradicts the city's "housing first" commitment; that it would break the trust of homeless residents that the city is trying to help; and that the city needs to focus on enforcement of laws already on the books in order to mitigate impacts of unsheltered homelessness.

Members Myers and Sulte voted against the motion to quash the measure. Perez-Verdia was absent.

City will allow safe parking areas for homeless

The Assembly passed the ordinance allowing the creation of designated safe parking areas in an 8-1 vote. Member Myers voted against it, while members Brawley, Constant, Johnson, Martinez, Rivera, Sulte and Volland voted to approve the measure.

The parking areas will be limited to 25 vehicles, and the Anchorage Health Department will keep a database of such areas.

Any person or organization with the management authority over a property can apply to Anchorage's health department to establish a safe parking site.

The parking areas can be operated only during times when the city's emergency shelter plan is activated. That happens in three circumstances: when outdoor temperatures are 45 degrees or lower overnight; when the mayor proclaims a civil emergency; or when the health department director has declared that a lack of available shelter options poses a danger to the life or safety of homeless who are unsheltered.

The Bronson administration had proposed the idea for safe parking spaces in its first version of the proposed encampment rules, which failed. Assembly members Rivera and Randy Sulte moved the idea forward in Thursday's approved ordinance, with several more parameters outlining how they can operate.

A resolution proposed by Bronga and approved in a unanimous vote Thursday similarly calls for safe camping areas for up to three tents each to be established on properties owned or used by religious institutions, public agencies, and nonprofit or commercial businesses. The resolution does not have the force of law but sets out guidelines for the administration to pilot a camping program using a city registry.

Shipping the Sprung Structure

Bronson's $240,000 proposal to ship the city's Sprung Structure resurrected a heated debate over the stalled multimillion-dollar shelter and navigation center project. The project was dogged by controversy and a ballooning budget.

Bronson in 2021 proposed building a 1,000-person Sprung Structure facility for homeless shelter and navigation services in East Anchorage, scrapping homelessness plans advanced by previous administrations. Assembly members reduced the proposal to a capacity of 150 to 200 people, but then killed the project after learning that the Bronson administration allowed millions of dollars in construction work to proceed without Assembly approval, violating city contracting rules.

Since then, the mayor has frequently foisted blame onto the Assembly for the city's homelessness problems. Likewise, Assembly members have criticized Bronson for not producing complete plans with details such as how sheltering would be run or paid for.

Bronson and local nonprofit Henning Inc. say they now have a private funder to cover construction costs and called for the city to immediately ship the prefabricated building. They have so far provided few details about the deal, including who would be spending the millions to erect the structure.

Several Assembly members questioned Bronson's motivations and criticized the administration, and listed numerous questions.

"So it's about $20 million to build and you tell me that there's somebody who's willing to, just out of the goodness of their heart, do that for the city?" Assembly member Zac Johnson said.

The Assembly so far has not received a formal proposal, contract, plan or terms in writing, and can't make a such a decision based on someone's word, he said.

"Frankly, I'm a little annoyed that I've been asked to contemplate this when we haven't been given 90% of the relevant information that I think we would need to make this decision," Johnson said.

Ryan Lucas, real estate broker and co-owner of Regal North Commercial and who is representing Henning, told Assembly members that on Tuesday morning, they will present a plan to the public. She said that they don't yet know the estimated construction costs and are working to get all the information on the facility.

A push from Johnson and a few other members to postpone the decision on shipping the structure until May, after the presentation, failed.

When members rejected the measure in a 3-7 vote Thursday night, Bronson immediately slammed the Assembly in a media statement, saying he "unequivocally denounces the Assembly's decision and demands an immediate reconsideration of this critical funding."

"This glaringly highlights the Assembly's disregard for the well-being of our community and their duty to serve its best interests," Bronson said in the statement.

Assembly members Bronga, Myers, and Sulte voted to ship the structure. Members Brawley, Constant, Johnson, Martinez, Perez-Verdia, Rivera and Volland voted against it.

This is Bronson's second failed push to revive the project since the Assembly's 2022 vote to halt it. The attempt comes as the mayor is running for reelection. In mayoral candidate debates and campaign messaging, he has attacked rival candidate Suzanne LaFrance, the Assembly's former chair, over her vote to kill the project.

Expressing frustration, Assembly member Brawley on Thursday said the administration has established a pattern of telling the Assembly it has a plan but providing no details and telling the members to immediately approve it.

"We're in Groundhog Day. And we're being put in the exact same position and the same pressure is being applied," Brawley said.

Assembly Vice Chair Meg Zaletel, who is also the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, did not participate in debate or vote during Thursday's meeting.