Anchorage adds more shelter beds after unusually high amount of snow and record outdoor deaths

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Anchorage scrambled Tuesday to come up with more temporary housing for the homeless after back-to-back snowstorms dumped more than 3 feet of snow on the city in just nine days, an amount that is high even by Alaska standards.

The concern grows as temperatures are expected to plummet to single digits by the weekend.

Four people believed to be homeless have already died this month, part of a record 49 deaths of people living outdoors in Alaska’s largest city this year, according to a count kept by the Anchorage Daily News.

The Anchorage Assembly met in special session Tuesday and approved a contract to add 50 beds to a shelter that just opened in October.

The current shelter was initially set up for 150 beds in the administration building of a former waste transfer site, the city’s answer after the mass shelter established during the pandemic in a sports arena was closed. It’s part of a patchwork of shelters in old hotels, apartment buildings and social services facilities to attempt to house the city’s homeless population, estimated at over 3,100 people.

The new emergency cold weather shelter was above 90% capacity, leading the assembly to unanimously approve expansion.

Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless director, said they are working with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness to give the new beds to those most in need.

“I appreciate the focus on our highest vulnerable populations,” said Felix Rivera, an Anchorage Assembly member who chairs the Housing and Homeless Committee.

Some questions were raised about adding beds to this facility, which is far from social service organizations.

“I would like to maintain the 200 person capacity, especially for emergency situations such as we’ve had lately with snowfall and frigid temperatures,” Johnson said.

It will cost the city nearly $200,000 to increase the capacity through the end of the year. If the expansion is still needed in 2024, it will cost nearly another $500,000 to operate the shelter for four months.

David Rittenberg, the senior director of adult homeless services for Catholic Social Services, said getting 50 news beds lined up is welcome.

“It’s tough for people out there, shelters are full,” he said.

Catholic Social Services provides nearly 250 beds at three shelters in Anchorage. “And they’re full every single night,” he said.

Demand for beds didn’t really increase during the storms, but that will change. He said during the heavy snow, people will hunker down in their tents focusing on necessities, staying warm and dry.

It’s when the snow lets up that things change, when people being to think about their next steps.

Concern also increases when temperatures drop and people attempt to stay warm. One person was killed this month when her makeshift shelter caught on fire from a heating source while she was sleeping.

The heavy snowstorms walloped Anchorage, leaving cars and even trucks stuck in streets that weren’t plowed. Schools either closed or went to remote learning, garbage trucks stopped pickups, city and state officers were closed and grocery and liquor stores saw increased traffic between storms.

With just under 38 inches of snow over the nine days, this is the third most snow that Anchorage has received over a period of several days since snow data records began being kept in 1916.

“This is really very high and unusual snow for Anchorage,” said Brian Brettschneider, a climate scientist with the National Weather Service.

Last December, 44 inches fell over a 12-day period, Brettschneider said. In 1996, 44 inches also fell over a 10-day period.

It's also one of the highest snow totals through Nov. 13, but a fast start doesn’t always translate into a heavy snow year.

The 1982-83 winter season started with 38.7 inches through Nov. 13 but only finished with 71.4 total, Brettschneider said. In 1996, the 36.6-inch November start fizzled to 69 total inches for the season.

“Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh my gosh, we got so much snow, this is going to be an epic snow winter,’” Brettschneider said. “It just doesn’t always work out like that.”

Even with the snow, Alaska is not getting a break with global warming, he said.

“Every day it snowed was a warmer-than-normal day in Anchorage,” he said. “We’re threading the needle here of warming temperatures and increased snowfall.”