When Paulette Dunbar ran out of money last month, she found herself with few housing options.
Born and raised in Anchorage, Dunbar had been teetering at the edge of homelessness. Like many others in Anchorage, she was living in low-budget motels because she couldn’t afford her own place.
While motels are expensive, they provide shelter without requiring longterm commitments, or upfront cash for first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit. But motels can be unforgiving.
“If you can’t pay, it’s ‘bye,’” Dunbar said.
That’s what happened to Dunbar and the man she calls her common-law husband, Michael Wood Jr. The couple suddenly found themselves out on the street.
The pair, who say they were new to homelessness, swallowed their pride and moved to the Sullivan Arena, which the municipality set up as mass shelter in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit Anchorage.
“When you’re in those circumstances your choices are very limited,” said Dunbar, sitting with Wood on a bench outside the nearby Ben Boeke Ice Arena on a recent afternoon.
Dunbar and Wood said they feel fortunate the arena-turned-shelter was there to take them in. Besides food, hot showers, social services, and cots separated by six feet of space, the mass shelter now offers an on-site clinic.
Operated by Southcentral Foundation, Providence Health Services Alaska, and Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, the clinic offers acute and chronic medical care, including the cleaning and dressing of wounds, a common ailment among the homeless. The providers also offer medication management, crisis intervention, mental health therapy, and medically assisted detox and substance use disorder treatment.
The clinic cares for patients experiencing withdrawal symptoms using FDA-approved medications, said Kristerra Yawea, psychiatric nurse practitioner with Providence.
Both Dunbar and Wood, who moved into a Midtown apartment last weekend, have used the clinic to help get back on needed medications. They both have documented disabilities but were not connected to a primary care physician until the got to the Sullivan.
Dunbar experiences bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. With the right mix of medications, she is able to work.
“I have no problem getting a job but I need my medication to be stable to keep my job and so that is what they are helping me with,” said Dunbar.
Besides medical care, the couple received housing assistance from Cook Inlet Housing Authority and the Alaska Native Justice Center. The assistance is contingent on following a case plan, said Benny Briggs, a manager with the Alaska Native Justice Center.
“One element of it is they have to find a job within 30 days,” Briggs said.
Briggs will go to lengths to help a person, but if you don’t do what he expects of you, “it’s off with your head,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar and Wood got connected with food stamps, bus passes, vocational rehabilitation, disability benefits, and employment counseling. Last week, Wood was preparing to start work as a janitor at an outdoor retail shop.
“I’m just happy to have a job,” Wood said.
The Sullivan Arena clinic came together over the course of seven weeks this summer, overcoming a slew of bureaucratic obstacles including different billing and paperwork systems among the three providers, said Katelyn Sheehan, navigation director with Bean’s Café, the nonprofit running the mass shelter under a contract with the municipality.
Once Sullivan was up and running, sheltering more 350 people per night and assisting others during the day, the need for onsite health care became urgent and obvious, said Sheehan.
“It was pretty evident that we had overwhelming medical needs."
Not everyone seen at the clinic suffers a severe health condition, but many clients have issues that had long gone unaddressed. During the hunker-down period when buses weren’t running, people couldn’t get to doctor appointments or the emergency room. One client at the Sullivan with a heart condition nearly died because he had run out of his regular medication, Sheehan said.
Besides getting people stabilized and given the care they need, the clinic also helps people get reconnected with the health care system, or “their medical home,” as providers say. Many of the doctors, residents, nurses and physician assistants serving at Sullivan have experience working with homeless individuals both at Brother Francis Shelter’s clinic and at Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, which treats people regardless of ability to pay.
A trusting relationship can be the key that helps people turn their lives around, homeless advocates say. It doesn’t always happen right away. A typical survivor of domestic violence, for example, makes an average of seven attempts before breaking free of an abusive relationship, said Sheehan.
With homelessness, it can take many attempts to move from the streets or shelters into housing, even if a person is willing. They may fear a loss of community which can be isolating and difficult, she said. Or they may feel overwhelmed by the new responsibilities of having their own place. These are people who may have been chronically homeless.
But a share of the people staying at Sullivan are new to homelessness. They may have suffered a job loss because of pandemic-related business closures or slowdowns, especially in the food and hospitality industry. Others are working part-time, taking classes or pursuing job certifications so they can retool themselves in the workforce, Sheehan said.
“People have a typical view of what homeless people are. But they’re not all drug addicts and drunks and bums and don’t want to work and are uneducated. There are a lot of us that are here because of circumstances. You lose your job. Your savings run out. It happens,” Dunbar said.