Editorial: Anchorage needs to take care of its unsheltered residents, not exile them

People walk from a homeless encampment in Anchorage
People walk from a homeless encampment in Anchorage. The city’s mayor wants to pay for plane tickets to warmer climates for homeless people.
(Bill Roth / Associated Press)

With cold weather coming soon to Alaska and few beds available in homeless shelters, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson announced an affordable idea for dealing with his city’s homeless population — offer them plane tickets to somewhere else. Preferably warmer. Like Los Angeles.

“If someone says ‘I want to go to Los Angeles or San Diego or Seattle or Kansas,’ it’s not our business,” he said at a news conference last week. “My job is to make sure they don’t die on Anchorage streets.”

Actually, Mr. Mayor, your job is to make sure Alaskans who are homeless in Anchorage get housed in Anchorage and not dispatched elsewhere without lodging or money, and left to fend for themselves.


Even Bronson seemed to realize how bad this plan sounds, telling reporters, “I’m left with these far-less-than-optimal options” because he has lost access this year to a sports arena that last winter sheltered as many as 500 people in the course of each day. And all his attempts to finance a large shelter in recent years have been rebuffed by state officials, he added.

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“I have a moral imperative here and that is to save lives, 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.”

This is ridiculous. The moral imperative is for the mayor to do everything in his power to shelter or house the residents of his city who have wound up homeless. Anchorage, too, lacks affordable housing. City and state officials need to work on a solution that doesn’t involve relocating people to far-flung states. But Bronson makes it sound like he’s just tired of homeless people on his streets when he says he also has to take care of the taxpayer who “doesn’t want to see what I see every day on the street — homeless people who appear to be visibly homeless, misbehaving.”

Last year, the Salvation Army did offer plane tickets out of Anchorage to homeless people who they could confirm had family or friends to stay with elsewhere. But this time, city officials will put on a plane anyone who asks to go anywhere in the U.S. mainland (the Lower 48, as Alaskans like to call it).

“It’s an opportunity to make choices and have some autonomy over their own circumstances,” says Alexis Johnson, the housing and homeless coordinator for Anchorage. Johnson expects that the mayor’s office will ask the City Council for funding for the plane tickets (about $50,000 she estimates) or raise private funds.

It’s not that unusual for city officials to think that people camping on their streets can be persuaded to move into a neighboring municipality and set up a tent there. L.A. city officials spend a lot of time trying to discourage that and get other cities in L.A. county to pull their weight when it comes to providing temporary and permanent housing for homeless people.


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But flying people out of one city to another one is irresponsible when there is no family member or friend on the other end. Where will these people find housing? Will they get traveling money along with the plane ticket?

The homeless population of Anchorage is a mere fraction of what it is in Los Angeles — but as in L.A., the numbers are going in the wrong direction. The last annual tally counted more than 46,000 homeless people in the city of L.A., up 10% from last year. Anchorage’s 2023 homeless count recorded 1,760 people living on the street and in overnight shelters — up from 1,494 last year. About 750 of those are camping outside.

The fear, say Anchorage officials, is that they will die in freezing temperatures. Last year 24 homeless people died — about a third of those due to exposure to cold weather, according to Johnson. So far this year, 29 people have died, surpassing last year’s tally.

It’s not that Anchorage has done nothing for its unsheltered residents. The city has helped organizations buy hotels and motels to use as interim and permanent housing for homeless people, and has given out emergency housing vouchers. Johnson says the city wants to get federal funding for hotel and motel rooms to be used as temporary housing. She sees the offer of plane tickets as a supplement to whatever shelter is available in town when November rolls around and there is snow on the ground.

Getting homeless people into housing is not easy anywhere. But Anchorage officials should be more aggressive in making the case for desperately needed funding for homeless housing from state and federal sourcesand save the plane tickets for their own trips to Washington, D.C. to plead for assistance.