An ‘Unimaginable’ Death Toll Among Anchorage’s Homeless Residents

The arrival of frigid temperatures and heavy snow in recent days has contributed to a spate of deaths of homeless people in Anchorage, Alaska, adding to a toll that had already left political leaders scrambling for new solutions.

One woman died when fire consumed her makeshift shelter in the woods. A man was found dead in the doorway of a downtown gift shop. Another was discovered inside his tent. A running tally of homeless deaths kept by the city’s largest newspaper, The Anchorage Daily News, is now up to 49 — more than double last year’s toll.

“It is fairly depressing, just unimaginable, the number of deaths we have been having,” said Felix Rivera, a member of the Anchorage Assembly who leads the Housing and Homelessness Committee.

The harsh winters in Alaska have long brought dangers for those sleeping outside. But this year, those conditions have joined a confluence of other factors contributing to a dire situation: a housing crisis, the spread of fentanyl and a dearth of shelter beds after the city shuttered a large shelter in a city arena six months ago.

Anchorage’s shelters have room for 524 people each night, but the city believes about 900 people need a place to stay. On Tuesday, Mayor Dave Bronson plans to propose expanding one shelter, opened just last month, to 200 beds from 150. But city officials cautioned that there was no more space in the building to expand further.

“We really are running out of options in terms of locations and operators,” said Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless coordinator. The office is looking at opening at least a warming center for people who have nowhere else to go.

Meg Zaletel, the executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, said the city needed to better understand all the factors that might be contributing to deaths, including not only shelter space and health care but also transportation to reach those services. Two of the people who recently died in the city used wheelchairs.

Ms. Zaletel said the city’s shelters had at times not prioritized the most vulnerable people, meaning that those who were older or had medical conditions were not always able to gain access to the limited shelter beds.

“It’s the beginning of winter,” said Ms. Zaletel, who also serves on the Anchorage Assembly but spoke in her capacity as leader of the homelessness nonprofit. “It is just the beginning of winter. We have the ability to course-correct and get on the right path.”

This year’s soaring death toll has in part been driven by a fentanyl crisis that has led to overdoses among homeless residents, including in months with warmer weather, several officials said. Another problem has been the dispersal of people away from congregate settings such as the former arena shelter and into the streets, where it can be harder to provide services and respond to emergency needs, Mr. Rivera said.

A year ago, the city had hundreds of people staying at the Sullivan Arena, a complex used for hockey games, concerts and graduations that became an emergency shelter during the coronavirus pandemic. As officials moved to close the shelter this spring, many of the people staying there had no place to go, and political leaders were unable to develop a sufficient alternative plan.

At one point, Mr. Bronson proposed a plan to pay for one-way plane tickets that would send homeless people to warmer climates before winter arrived. That plan met with widespread opposition, and did not proceed.

Among the people who had been staying at the arena was Alfred Koonaloak, an Alaska Native man who used a wheelchair. Shawn Hays, the director of the nonprofit that was contracted by the city to run the shelter, said she met Mr. Koonaloak a decade ago and had kept in regular contact with him.

Soon after leaving the arena, Mr. Koonaloak was back on the streets, sleeping in his wheelchair under blankets, Ms. Hays said. She and co-workers would bring him food, coffee and other necessities. She said she went to see him a couple weeks ago, encouraging him to try and claim a space in one of the city’s shelters. But she said he was not ready to do so.

Last week, she learned that Mr. Koonaloak was among those who died, in the doorway of the gift shop, as frigid weather cut through the city.

“I didn’t take it very well,” she said. “I’m a bit devastated.”

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