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

by Madison Thomas
Anchorage Snowstorm

Anchorage is facing a pressing challenge as it grapples with an unusually high amount of snow and a record number of outdoor deaths, particularly among the homeless population. In just nine days, the city has been inundated with more than 3 feet of snow, a quantity that surpasses even the high standards expected in Alaska.

The situation is further exacerbated by the impending drop in temperatures to single digits over the weekend. Tragically, this month has already seen the loss of four individuals believed to be homeless, contributing to a grim statistic of 49 deaths of people living outdoors in Alaska’s largest city this year, according to data maintained by the Anchorage Daily News.

In response to this crisis, the Anchorage Assembly convened a special session on Tuesday and authorized a contract to expand an existing shelter by adding 50 additional beds. This shelter, established in October, was originally set up to accommodate 150 beds within the administration building of a former waste transfer site. It emerged as a solution after the closure of a mass shelter located in a sports arena during the pandemic. Anchorage’s efforts to address homelessness involve a patchwork of shelters housed in old hotels, apartment buildings, and social services facilities, aimed at accommodating the city’s estimated homeless population of over 3,100 individuals.

The decision to expand the emergency cold weather shelter, which was already operating at above 90% capacity, was unanimously approved by the assembly. Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless director, emphasized that they are collaborating with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness to allocate the new beds to those in the most dire need.

While the expansion received support, some raised concerns about the shelter’s distance from social service organizations. Johnson stressed the importance of maintaining the capacity of 200 persons, especially during emergency situations such as recent heavy snowfall and frigid temperatures.

This expansion will come at a cost of nearly $200,000 to the city to increase capacity through the end of the year. If the need for expansion persists into 2024, it will require an additional expenditure of nearly $500,000 to operate the shelter for four months.

David Rittenberg, the senior director of adult homeless services for Catholic Social Services, welcomed the addition of 50 new beds, highlighting the ongoing challenges faced by shelters due to high demand. Catholic Social Services currently provides nearly 250 beds across three shelters in Anchorage, and they are consistently at full capacity.

Interestingly, the demand for beds did not see a significant increase during the snowstorms, as people focused on essential survival needs while staying warm and dry in their tents. However, concerns mount as the snow subsides, and individuals contemplate their next steps. Additionally, plummeting temperatures pose risks as people seek ways to stay warm; a tragic incident this month saw one person lose their life when their makeshift shelter caught fire from a heating source while they were sleeping.

The heavy snowstorms have taken a toll on Anchorage, leaving vehicles stranded on unplowed streets, disrupting school schedules, halting garbage collection, and forcing the closure of government offices, including city and state facilities. Grocery and liquor stores witnessed heightened traffic between the storms.

With nearly 38 inches of snowfall over nine days, this ranks as the third-largest snowfall recorded in Anchorage over such a short timeframe since records began in 1916. Notably, last December saw 44 inches of snow over a 12-day period, and in 1996, a similar amount fell over a 10-day period.

While this represents one of the highest snowfall totals through November 13, it’s important to note that a strong start to the snow season doesn’t necessarily predict an exceptionally snowy winter. Historical data shows instances where a promising start in November did not lead to an overall heavy snowfall season.

Despite the heavy snowfall, Alaska remains affected by global warming, with climate scientist Brian Brettschneider of the National Weather Service noting that the days when it snowed were warmer than usual in Anchorage. This underscores the delicate balance between rising temperatures and increased snowfall in the region.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Anchorage Snowstorm

Q: Why is Anchorage adding more shelter beds?

A: Anchorage is adding more shelter beds due to an unusually high amount of snow and a record number of outdoor deaths, particularly among the homeless population. The heavy snowfall, coupled with plummeting temperatures, has created a crisis situation, necessitating additional shelter capacity to protect vulnerable individuals.

Q: How much snow has Anchorage received in recent days?

A: Anchorage has received more than 3 feet of snow in just nine days, which is considered high even by Alaskan standards. This heavy snowfall has caused various disruptions in the city, from stranded vehicles to school closures.

Q: What is the current homeless situation in Anchorage?

A: Anchorage has witnessed a record number of outdoor deaths among the homeless population this year, with 49 reported deaths. The city’s homeless population is estimated to be over 3,100 individuals, prompting efforts to provide emergency shelter and support during extreme weather conditions.

Q: How is Anchorage addressing homelessness during these challenging conditions?

A: Anchorage is expanding an existing shelter by adding 50 additional beds to accommodate the homeless population during the winter season. This decision was made in a special session of the Anchorage Assembly to address the immediate need for shelter and protection from frigid temperatures.

Q: What are the challenges faced by shelters in Anchorage?

A: Shelters in Anchorage, including the new emergency cold weather shelter, have been operating at high capacity, highlighting the ongoing challenges of meeting the demand for shelter and support services. The recent snowstorms have also added complexity to the situation, as people seek refuge from extreme weather conditions.

Q: How much does it cost to expand the shelter’s capacity?

A: Expanding the shelter’s capacity through the end of the year will cost the city nearly $200,000. If the need for expansion continues into 2024, an additional expenditure of nearly $500,000 will be required to operate the shelter for four months.

Q: What are the concerns regarding the snow and homeless population?

A: The heavy snowfall poses risks to the homeless population, particularly when individuals attempt to stay warm in makeshift shelters. Tragic incidents, such as fires caused by heating sources, have occurred during these conditions, highlighting the need for safe and adequate shelter options.

Q: Is Anchorage experiencing a particularly snowy winter season?

A: While Anchorage has received a significant amount of snow in a short period, historical data shows that a strong start to the snow season does not always translate into an exceptionally snowy winter overall. Climate scientists also note that despite the heavy snowfall, Anchorage continues to be affected by global warming.

Q: How is the city addressing the snow-related challenges beyond shelter capacity?

A: The heavy snowfall has led to various disruptions in Anchorage, affecting transportation, school schedules, garbage collection, and government office operations. The city is working to address these challenges as it copes with the aftermath of the snowstorms.

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WeatherGeek23 November 15, 2023 - 1:05 am

Snow records breakin in Anchorage, but still, global warmin’ ain’t stoppin’.

CityLifeObserver November 15, 2023 - 7:05 am

This is a big problem, high snow and deaths, hope this shelter helps them ppl, costs a lot tho!

SupportLocal November 15, 2023 - 8:20 am

Thumbs up for Catholic Social Services, doin’ their best with full shelters every night. Tough times for everyone.

Reader87 November 15, 2023 - 11:26 pm

wow, lotsa snow in anchorage, them homeless ppl need help, glad they adding beds. cold weather’s bad, need shelter!


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