ANCHORAGE — With just a few days until an opening ceremony and ribbon-cutting, Karluk Manor’s controversial transformation from an old hotel to a long-term home for Anchorage homeless alcoholics is nearly complete.
On Saturday, most floors in the manor’s hallways and its 46 efficiency apartments were bare, except for scattered tools and construction materials. Fresh Sheetrock was painted an off-white, awaiting trim around doorways. Two workers tested an elevator they were installing over the weekend in one of the manor’s two buildings.
The complex — in a fenced lot on Karluk Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues — will open soon to chronic alcoholics in a test of much-debated public policy.
For one thing, Karluk Manor’s rules will allow residents to drink booze if they want. The idea, called Housing First, hasn’t been an easy sell in Anchorage, and while the Fairview Community Council says it does not oppose the concept, neighborhood residents complain that they already have a high concentration of homeless with a nearby shelter, two soup kitchens and busy liquor stores.
There has indeed been controversy, said Melinda Freemon, supportive housing director for Rural CAP, the nonprofit agency managing Karluk Manor.
Those concerns complicated the effort to remodel the buildings, formerly the Red Roof Inn.
Getting the building up to code as a social services provider for alcohol-dependent residents meant several upgrades, including installation of an elevator and a heated walkway between the two buildings, Freemon said. Housing managers also are required to provide two meals a day seven days a week, she said.
Altogether, the remodel’s total cost will be about $1.65 million, Freemon said, and it will cost between $850,000 to $950,000 a year to run.
About $3.5 million in state housing grants was used to buy the property and renovate it and will help with operating costs. Federal housing vouchers will help pay for most of the rent, and tenants will be required to pay 30 percent of whatever income they get from public assistance or elsewhere to make up the difference, Freemon said.
For supporters of the Housing First model, facilities like Karluk Manor represent the solution to a math problem, not just a social problem. Rural CAP estimates one homeless person costs city emergency services and state courts a total of more than $60,000 a year. The agency says it can provide housing and other services through Karluk Manor at a cost of about $21,275 per person annually.
Freemon said she’s hoping all the work is completed by the end of October and residents can start moving in at some point in November.
“We really want folks to be safe and be warm,” she said.
But to some critics, the project presents a question of fairness. Why provide housing to those who may spend their money and time drinking rather than working for a place of their own? Giving someone a free place to stay without the condition of sobriety removes the incentive for them to clean up, the argument goes.
Supporters say those living on the streets first need warm beds, warm meals and roofs over their heads, followed by treatment for substance abuse.
Freemon gave a quick tour of Karluk Manor on Saturday.
“I don’t know if there are any rooms that look ‘roomish’ because they’re putting (in) the new floor,” she said, peeking through a door.
When the new carpet is in, the apartments will be furnished with a single bed, a table and chairs. There will be a TV, a microwave and a small refrigerator, Freemon said. “Like a dorm.”
“They’ll be very modest,” she said. “Nothing luxurious.”
As many as 20 security cameras also will be installed inside and outside the buildings, Freemon said. And, with a black metal fence circling the property, all residents, staff and guests will arrive through a single entryway, where a staff member will keep track of everyone in the facility, she said.
The residents will be allowed to drink in their rooms, but all common areas are off limits to alcohol, Freemon said. They’ll have to respect the neighborhood and the surrounding area, she said, “all that goes with being a good neighbor.”
Fairview Community Council President Michael Howard said he and other neighbors aren’t so sure.
“The community has expressed strong opposition to the project, basically since we first heard about it,” Howard said. “It’s not that we’re against the Housing First model; it’s been shown to work to some degree. But it’s not helping clean up Fairview.
“We feel like we’re already dealing with what is really a citywide problem. It’s a problem that’s bigger than Fairview,” Howard said.
Fairview residents will be watching how things pan out at Karluk Manor and are prepared to continue their opposition through comments on the project’s conditional-use permit with the city, Howard said.
For the community council president, many questions remain. Will the project remove homeless people from the neighborhood’s streets? Or will it concentrate more street inebriates there?
“It’s too soon to tell,” Howard said.
Freemon said drunk people not living at Karluk Manor will not be allowed to hang around. No more than 10 visitors will be allowed at the facility at a time, she said.
Freemon says the residents who don’t follow the rules for drinking and visitors could receive interventions.
“And then if they’re not able to abide by the interventions or change their behavior, then eventually they will have to be evicted,” Freemon said.
Rural CAP will have eight to 10 staff members working shifts at Karluk Manor, between two and four at any given time, Freemon said. While they continue to hire for some of those positions, between 15 or 20 referrals have already come in recommending homeless folks who want to live there, she said.
Many of the most vulnerable among Anchorage’s homeless population — those who’ve spent years living outside and have chronic health problems coupled with alcohol and drug addiction — were identified during a recent survey, the 100,000 Homes Campaign. A list of people from that effort will be added to a list composed from applications submitted at local social service organizations, Freemon said.
Ultimately, Karluk Manor will be inhabited by substance abusers, likely some with serious medical problems, Freemon said.
People will die there, she said.
“We’re expecting that. The community should expect that as well,” Freemon said. “These are end-stage alcoholics, and if we can provide them with dignity and respect and help them contribute, their lives will improve.”