ANCHORAGE, Alaska. - An unfunded proposal by Anchorage’s mayor to pay for plane tickets to warmer climates for homeless people who would otherwise be forced to winter outside in the bitter cold has caused a stir in Alaska’s biggest city.
Last year, eight people — a record for the city — died of exposure in Anchorage and the closure of a large arena earlier this year that served as a makeshift city shelter is sure to exacerbate the crisis in a place where winter temperatures regularly dip below zero.
"When people approach us and want to go to someplace warm or they want to go to some town where they have family or friends that can take care of them, if they choose to go there, we’ll support that," Mayor Dave Bronson said at a Tuesday news conference.
If the program moves forward, people can choose to relocate to the Lower 48 or somewhere else in Alaska where it might be warmer or where they have relatives.
With the pandemic, officials configured the roughly 6,000-seat Sullivan Arena to be a mass-care facility. It has served more than 500 homeless people in the winters until city officials decided to return it to its original purpose hosting concerts and hockey games.
While some smaller shelters have opened, there is no large care facility in the city and homeless services are limited. Nine other smaller shelters provide 614 beds for the homeless. Bronson’s sudden proclamation comes at a time of political tension over the homelessness crisis between the Republican mayor and the liberal-leaning Anchorage Assembly.
Bronson in 2021 had proposed building a shelter and navigation center on the city’s east side, but the Anchorage Assembly whittled the capacity to only 150 beds. Construction was then put on hold when the Bronson administration awarded the contract without approval from the Assembly, which is scheduled to decide next month if it will proceed.
The lack of shelter space this winter could leave an estimated 750 unhoused residents in the cold.
"I have a moral imperative here, and that’s to save lives," Bronson said. "And if that means giving them a few hundred dollars for an airline ticket to go where they want to go, I’m going to do that."
Anchorage Assembly Chair Christopher Constant did not immediately return a email from The Associated Press on Tuesday. However, he told the Anchorage Daily News there have been no formal discussions with the Bronson administration to fund the relocation program.
"A good portion of our individuals experiencing homelessness are Alaska’s first people. This is their place. There is no other place," he said.
Bronson said a funding source has not been identified, and he’s put Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless director, in charge of coming up with a plan for the program. She didn’t immediately return an email seeking comment. Bronson said it won’t be difficult to administer the program.
"Someone says, ‘I want to go to Los Angeles or San Diego or Seattle or Kansas,’ it’s not our business," he said of their intended destination. "My job is to make sure they don’t die on Anchorage streets."
A one-way ticket to Los Angeles cost $289 on Tuesday, which Bronson said was much cheaper than the $100 or so it costs to house someone every day.
When asked if he was simply pushing Anchorage’s problems onto someone else, Bronson said Alaska’s largest city has 40% of the state’s population but 65% of the homeless population.
"The taxpayers to whom I’m responsible to can’t keep footing the entire bill," he said. "We need a statewide solution to a statewide problem."
The Alaska Legislature did not fund a $25 million request from Anchorage to purchase and operate a shelter.