Christian homeless shelters have served Anchorage’s most vulnerable residents for more than half a century. Along with provided food, shelter, job training and medical care, these missions have also provided hope and spiritual transformation for countless homeless men and women.
Now the city is looking to take control of these faith-based groups with a new proposal that seeks to establish a data base to track the homeless and maintain “the appropriate level of control and authority” over the outreaches that serve them.
Until the arrival of COVID-19 the city had never operated homeless shelters. It moved into this sphere when existing shelters were forced to reduce their capacity due to virus concerns and city mandates. Assemblyman John Weddleton, a sponsor of the ordinance, admitted that homeless shelters, for the most part, have operated well without government oversite. Nevertheless, he thinks this is the time to institute the new proposal.
“There are shelters in town that do a wonderful job. They don’t create a big problem in the neighborhood,” he said during a three-hour June 2 townhall meeting on the proposal. “What we want to do is not make it harder for the shelter operators to do the important work they do for all of us, but to make sure we don’t have the problems that we’ve seen are possible.”
He claimed the proposed plan is a “very gentle” licensing procedure that would avoid the very worst kinds of problems that are sometimes associated with homeless shelters.
“Right now, the shelters are being run very well, and we’re not seeing those problems,” Weddleton admitted. “We just want to make sure, should more open up, that we don’t run into problems.”
That’s not how Pastor John LaMantia sees it at all. Since 2014 he has served as the executive director of Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, an outreach that has served Anchorage’s homeless population since 1965.
LaMantia expressed concern that the city could make the regulatory measures so burdensome that they could easily find ways to fine them for noncompliance, or shut them down entirely.
“Most of the shelter providers are not in favor of this at all,” LaMantia told the Watchman. “The city’s goal is very clear – they are looking for control and authority.”
LaMantia said he is very concerned that the city is looking to essentially govern shelters that have effectively operated without their help for nearly 60 years.
“We have a very able board of directors,” he said. “We do not need (the city’s) governance and that is what they are trying to do.”
The proposed ordinance would grant the municipality broad powers to track all homeless clients, regulate qualifications and background checks for all volunteers and impose fines on shelters that are not deemed in compliance. Much of the details are not yet fleshed out. The fact that the Assembly wants to develop the policy details after first passing the proposal gives LaMantia pause.
“My overarching concern is with this control and authority,” he said. “They want to control everything that takes place.”
If the goal is to curb drunkenness, loitering and street crimes, LaMantia said the city should enforce its existing laws rather than try and regulate established shelters that have long filled a critical service for Anchorage.
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He expressed concern that the city could make the regulatory measures so burdensome that they could easily find ways to fine shelters for noncompliance, or shut them down entirely. Ultimately, he worries that the proposed licensing mandates could be used by the city to take over shelter missions across the city.
LaMantia said his outreach has provided upwards of $8 million dollars in services to area residents in need since 2014, and this is without taking a single dime in local, state or federal funds.
“They are all for that, but they still want to control our operations – control and authority – that’s so troublesome to me,” he said.
LaMantia’s concerns are not mere speculation. In 2018, the city attempted to fine the Downtown Hope Center – a battered women’s shelter – $75 for each time it refused to let a biological male who identified as a female from sleeping and showering with women. The city ultimately backed down and had to pay the faith-based shelter $100,000 in a court settlement.
The Assembly is set to take up the proposal at its June 8 regular meeting.
- Click here to read the proposed ordinance on regulating homeless shelters.
- The Assembly will take the ordinance up as an agenda item at its June 8 meeting. The public can also testify that day. Click here for details.