Why Anchorage Went After a Women's Overnight Shelter
Alone in the cold, homeless women in Anchorage, Alaska, need somewhere to turn—somewhere to feel safe.
Many of these women are victims of unspeakable trauma, including domestic violence, sexual assault, and even sex trafficking. But often, the only refuge from the cold is a co-ed shelter where these women feel unsafe due to the presence of men. Some of them would rather sleep in the woods in the frigid Alaskan temperatures than next to a man.
As you might imagine, it can be easy for someone in this situation to feel like an outcast—like they don’t matter and are not loved. This is why the Downtown Hope Center exists. Written on the windows are the words, “You matter. You are loved.” So the Hope Center only allows women in its overnight quarters to ensure that these women feel safe.
But for almost a year, Anchorage officials threatened to take away this safe haven, leaving these women out in the cold. The Hope Center filed a lawsuit so it could continue to serve this vulnerable population.
Let’s take a closer look at the case and why the government came after this vital ministry.
What is the Downtown Hope Center?
Sherrie Laurie spent over 20 years as a successful pilot for FedEx. Later in life, she was inspired to serve the homeless. As a child, Sherrie’s homeless uncle frightened her, shaping her early view of the homeless community. As an adult, Sherrie decided to overcome this fear by serving people who, just like her uncle, were in dire need.
Today, she is the director of the Downtown Hope Center, a Christian nonprofit organization that offers job-skills training, daily meals, laundry, and clothing for the homeless men and women of Anchorage—all free of charge.
“Inspired by the love of Jesus,” the center’s mission is to “offer those in need support, shelter, sustenance, and skills to transform their lives.” The Downtown Hope Center has been helping, teaching, and feeding homeless men and women for over 30 years, handing out 450-600 cups of soup every day.
At night, the Hope Center offers a free shelter for women only, a safe place for the many homeless women to escape from abusive situations and even sex trafficking.
You would think that the local government would want to support organizations like the Hope Center. Instead, Anchorage officials went after it—twice—because of its Christian beliefs.
Downtown Hope Center v. Municipality of Anchorage I and Downtown Hope Center v. Municipality of Anchorage II
It all started in January 2018, when a man who identifies as a woman tried to gain access to the women’s shelter. He was injured and intoxicated, so Sherrie sent him to a local hospital to get the medical care he needed. She even paid for his taxi.
Soon after, a complaint was filed against the Hope Center with the Anchorage Civil Rights Commission, claiming the center had discriminated against this individual. But the Hope Center never violated the law. In fact, it got this man the care he needed.
The Hope Center serves everyone—men and women alike, no matter how they identify. But to provide a safe place for women escaping sex trafficking or abusive situations, the Hope Center only allows women to stay overnight.
Unbelievably, Anchorage officials twisted a law to attempt to force the Hope Center to admit men into its women’s shelter. The motivation was clear: they wanted to force this faith-based homeless shelter to get on board with their political agenda—all at the expense of the vulnerable women the Hope Center uniquely serves.
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit against the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission and the city. After a federal court ruled in favor of the Hope Center—issuing an order that stopped Anchorage officials from misapplying the ordinance—the city dropped its complaint.
But unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of their crusade against the homeless shelter. In 2021, city officials again attempted to force the Hope Center to allow males to sleep next to women in its overnight shelter. ADF attorneys filed a second lawsuit against Anchorage, and the district court once again ruled in favor of the Downtown Hope Center, finding that the center does not constitute a place of “public accommodation.”
What's at stake?
The Downtown Hope Center has a duty to protect the dignity, safety, and privacy of the vulnerable homeless women in its care. Admitting men into its shelter is contrary to that goal. Many of these women have suffered rape, physical abuse, and domestic violence. They should not be forced to sleep or change clothes in the same room as a man. But if Anchorage officials had gotten their way, these women would have been forced to sleep only a few feet away from a man.
Many of these homeless women already feel like they don’t matter. It’s a shame that Anchorage officials elevated their political agenda over the privacy and safety concerns of these women. In a rush to push religious beliefs out of the public square, these officials almost pushed vulnerable women out into the cold.
- November 2018: ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Downtown Hope Center in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska.
- January 2019: Oral arguments for the case took place.
- August 2019: The district court issued an order stopping Anchorage officials from misapplying the city ordinance against the Hope Center.
- September 2019: Anchorage officials dropped their complaint against the Hope Center.
- July 2021: ADF attorneys representing the Hope Center once again filed suit in federal court after the Anchorage Assembly amended the city ordinance in an attempt to find a new way to target Downtown Hope Center and force it to let males sleep next to women who have been abused.
- December 2021: The district court issued an order ruling that the city of Anchorage cannot enforce the city ordinance to require the Downtown Hope Center to admit males and let them sleep alongside women who have suffered physical and sexual abuse.
The bottom line
The Downtown Hope Center should be free to serve vulnerable women according to its faith without fear of government punishment.
Hear from Sherrie Laurie, director of the Downtown Hope Center:
ADF team members contributed to the writing and publication of this article.