As virus spreads, homeless take shelter at Anchorage arenas

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A steady flow of People Mover buses stopped outside Sullivan Arena on Saturday. As the buses opened their doors, people from Brother Francis Shelter and Bean’s Cafe descended the steps, hauling backpacks and trash bags filled with their belongings.

Lisa Sauder of Bean’s Cafe welcomed them to Anchorage’s new emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Bean’s is now closed.

“Females go to Ben Boeke,” Sauder told a young woman trying the front doors of Sullivan Arena.

“Where?” the woman asked. “I’m confused.”

“There, over there, hon,” Sauder said, pointing to the adjacent building across a snowy parking lot where two hockey rinks have been converted into sleeping space.

As the new coronavirus locks down life in Anchorage, the sports and entertainment complex on East 16th Avenue and the Seward Highway is buzzing with activity. Workers from Bean’s, Covenant House, private security companies and others were on hand Saturday, helping to provide emergency shelter and three meals a day to people in need.

Workers with Phoenix Protective Corp. are screening people who enter the shelter for any prohibited items. Shelter users first pass through a metal detector to be checked for weapons, Sauder said. A pair of emergency medical technicians employed by the municipality are standing by, one in each arena, screening for symptoms of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.


Medical providers consider the homeless population particularly vulnerable to the new coronavirus because of underlying medical conditions, close sleeping quarters at shelters and limited access to hand-washing stations or hand sanitizer. With many public buildings like libraries and private businesses shut down, it’s even harder for homeless people to wash their hands as frequently as health officials advise.

As of Saturday evening, more than 300 men and women had checked into the Sullivan and Ben Boeke arenas, Sauder said. The complex can accommodate up to 480. Each person gets a tote for their belongings and a mat to sleep on, spaced 6 feet apart from others as advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some 108 others, mostly wheelchair and walker users, are staying at Brother Francis Shelter, the city’s largest shelter. Brother Francis presents fewer physical barriers than the arenas, said Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services, which operates the shelter. Brother Francis also has a clinic and 10 medical respite beds.

Catholic Social Services is ramping up its homelessness prevention efforts, including reaching out to landlords, offering to pay first month’s rent and security deposits, and easing paperwork issues.

When possible, it’s even flying people out of state or back home to villages if they have a safe place to go.

Nine homeless residents were flown out of Anchorage and two found housing in the last week, Aquino said.

“This is work that we do all the time but in this emergency situation we really focused on it,” she said.

Paula Dobbyn

Paula Dobbyn is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on homelessness. She's a veteran Alaska journalist who has reported for the Anchorage Daily News, KTUU and the Alaska Public Radio Network. Contact her at