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Anchorage prepares to open arenas to homeless

Beans Cafe employee Ruth Free, left, and deputy director Kim Kovol lay out sleeping mats at the Ben Boeke Ice Arena on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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At two city-owned arenas in Anchorage on Friday, workers hastily set up mats, cots, hand-sanitizing stations, portable toilets and other necessities to keep up to 480 people safe and healthy in an emergency mass shelter.

Sullivan Arena and adjacent Ben Boeke Ice Arena are expected to open their doors on Saturday morning to anyone experiencing homelessness in Anchorage. City officials and service providers scrambled this week to convert the large sporting and entertainment centers into municipal shelters as the new coronavirus continues its rapid advance and as new cases of COVID-19 pop up daily in Alaska.

The city signed contracts with Bean’s Cafe to provide food for four months, said Lisa Sauder, executive director. Contracts were also signed with security companies for surveillance cameras and personnel to screen people entering the arenas for COVID-19. Other services being contracted include laundry, portable restrooms and showers.

Bean's Cafe executive director Lisa Sauder speaks to reporters at Ben Boeke Ice Arena on Friday, March 20, 2020. The Municipality of Anchorage is converting the Ben Boeke Ice Arena and nearby Sullivan Arena into emergency homeless shelters, which will allow for people to sleep at least 6 feet apart in the hopes of controlling the transmission of COVID-19. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Women, couples and LGBTQ individuals will sleep in Ben Boeke. Men will sleep in Sullivan Arena. If more space is needed for men, the second rink at Ben Boeke will be used, said Robin Ward, city director of real estate. Older and disabled people and those requiring medical respite will stay at Brother Francis Shelter, she said.

The homeless community is considered highly vulnerable to COVID-19 because many have underlying health conditions, or they are elderly and frail. The Anchorage arenas with provide them with more space than they currently have, and they will have better access to soap and water and hand sanitizer. According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 6 feet is needed between cots or mats at shelters amid the pandemic.

Allied Movers employee Nate Gionson assembles cots at Sullivan Arena on Friday, March 20, 2020. Sullivan Arena, depending on configuration, can normally seat over 6,000 people for a concert or sporting event. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

About 1,111 people are considered homeless in Anchorage. Of those, some 1,000 sleep at Brother Francis Shelter, Downtown Hope Center, Clare House, McKinnell House, Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis domestic violence shelter, Gospel Rescue Mission, churches, and in budget hotels that accept housing vouchers.

At Brother Francis, the city’s largest shelter, up to 240 people sleep in close proximity, often mat to mat.

As of last year, some 7,800 individuals accessed homeless services, according the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

The ranks of people experiencing homeless are expected to rise as Anchorage residents lose jobs or have their hours cut because of coronavirus containment measures. Social service providers say there’s an urgent and growing need for rental assistance, food, and child care to keep people from losing their housing.

Bean's Cafe employee Ben Hoffman, left, and Allied Movers employee Nate Gionson move sleeping mats into the Ben Boeke Ice Arena on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Anyone with questions about COVID-19 and where help is available can call 211 and get information and referrals.

Besides food and shelter, information will be available at the arenas about employment and housing options, addiction treatment, mental health resources and other vitally needed services.

“Our goal is to try to get people out of this system,” said Sauder. “But in the meantime, we will give them a warm, safe place.”