A year in, Sullivan Arena may be the biggest mass homeless shelter in the nation. What happens next?

The pre-pandemic paradigm for homeless shelters in Anchorage is likely gone for good. What comes after the Sullivan Arena model has yet to be decided.

For nearly a year, Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena has been a mass emergency homeless shelter.

These days, it might be the biggest one in the country, says Lisa Sauder, the head of Bean’s Cafe, the Anchorage nonprofit operating the shelter.

“We don’t know of any larger,” Sauder said, walking through a sea of cots spread out over a 32,0000-square-foot arena floor that has hosted, at various times in the past, hockey games, concerts, trade shows and monster truck rallies.

On Wednesday, more than 400 men and women seeking shelter in Alaska’s biggest city slept there.

Another 270 or so stayed at smaller, scattered-site “non congregate” shelters, including hotel rooms, throughout the city.

A year in, city and nonprofit operators agree that the Sullivan Arena mass shelter has been a success, citing low COVID-19 transmission rates and progress in getting visitors into long-term housing.

“I think they’ve done a phenomenal job,” said Jason Bockenstedt, chief of staff for acting Anchorage mayor Austin Quinn Davidson.

But the mass shelter at Sullivan Arena is not a permanent solution, he said.

For one thing, the building is designed to be an entertainment and sports venue. It’s huge and expensive to heat and light. Also, on Sept. 30, the FEMA reimbursement funding the city is getting to pay for emergency sheltering during the pandemic is slated to end, according to Bockenstedt.

That all leaves Anchorage at a profound turning point in how it shelters homeless people: Service providers agree that the old, pre-pandemic paradigm — a few packed day and night shelters concentrated along a single block of Third Avenue — is gone for good.

The Rasmuson Foundation and Weidner Apartment Homes announced last week that they will buy the properties adjacent to Brother Francis Shelter, turning Bean’s Cafe into a more structured “resource hub.”

Part of that plan includes a future for Brother Francis with fewer nightly residents — maybe 100-120 at most, according to Lisa Aquino of Catholic Social Services.

“We will likely never move back to sheltering 240 people inside the Brother Francis Shelter building at night, as we had,” she said.

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But the details of what a post-Sullivan Arena future will look like are still being debated. Before the Sullivan can be decommissioned, other shelters need to be set up, providers say, and attempts to place them in Anchorage neighborhoods have met with resistance.

“We have to have a solution in place,” Sauder said. “Or we would have a huge humanitarian crisis on our hands. You can’t just turn … 700 people in this community out on the street without shelter and food.”

‘We jumped into action’

When the pandemic hit, Alaska’s largest sports and entertainment venue was quickly pressed into service as a mass emergency homeless shelter because its size offered enough room for people to sleep and eat with enough distance to meet CDC guidelines, city officials say.

The first clients arrived on March 21, said Sauder. They never stopped coming: Since March, Sullivan Arena has served more than 3,000 individuals — far more than the estimated population of roughly 1,100 people cited by the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

These days even the mass shelter is straining capacity. On Wednesday, 403 people slept inside Sullivan Arena. Warming tents in the parking lot housed another 42 people.

The city says it has spent about $8.7 million to run the Sullivan Arena shelter. That money will eventually be reimbursed by federal FEMA emergency funding.

Sauder thinks the surge in people seeking shelter represents a combination of pandemic-driven economic distress and more people willing to stay in a different kind of group shelter.

Many of the faces she sees showing up to Sullivan Arena for a meal, bed or shower are new — not the regulars she knew from years at operating Bean’s Cafe as a soup kitchen and day shelter near Ship Creek.

“We’ve created a model of shelter that people are willing to engage in,” Sauder said. “A lot of people previously wouldn’t come to shelter: It was crowded, it was loud. It was not a place that everybody was comfortable.”

Marvin Mountain, a 30-year-old from Nulato, is one of those first-time shelter users.

Mountain said he arrived in Anchorage seeking fresh opportunities last March, just as the pandemic bore down. In December, he lost his apartment and ended up at Sullivan Arena.

“I was scared,” he said.

He said he feels relatively safe at the arena. He can store his belongings in a tote under his cot when he goes to work at a gas station. He said he’s saving up for an apartment.

At Sullivan Arena, people have access to their cot and a tub for belongings 24 hours a day and can stay inside during the daytime — which wasn’t allowed at Brother Francis Shelter.

They can also take showers, charge their cellphones and visit one of a dozen trained “navigators” who help replace lost ID cards, apply for housing, claim disability benefits and loan laptops for job applications. There’s an on-site medical clinic that also offers transportation to specialists. At a former concession stand on the second floor, clients have access to take-and-go hot meals 12 hours a day, plus snacks and drinks. Shrimp alfredo and barbecued chicken were on offer this week.

Offering a menu of choices “gives people agency,” said Scott Lingle, a professional trained chef who is now Bean’s chief operating officer.

One of the biggest lessons of Sullivan Arena is that you’ve got to bring as many of the things — food, shelter, health care, job seeking help — a person could need to get stable right to them, Sauder said.

The vibe inside the spacious arena on Wednesday morning was more purposeful than frenetic. Some people slept on their cots, others sipped coffee. Signs on the wall warned which infractions could get you trespassed from the property, and for how many days. Uniformed security guards stepped in when a scuffle erupted over a missing cellphone.

Hotel housing

Sullivan Arena isn’t the only place Anchorage is sheltering residents this winter.

Since the fall, the city has quietly been paying to put up hundreds of people considered most vulnerable because of age or medical conditions in hotel rooms scattered throughout town. As of this week, the city had spent $1,072,623.31 on non-congregate shelter beds, money also reimbursable by FEMA, according to the city.

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Part of the reason was loud outcry over the use of the Ben Boeke Ice Arena, next to the Sullivan, as overflow shelter, said Bockenstedt.

“It became very clear that there just wasn’t support to use the Boeke for this purpose, so it led us to — what other options do we have?” he said.

On Wednesday, 268 people were staying in city-paid rooms at hotels and motels scattered around Spenard, Midtown and downtown, including the Alex Hotel, the Sockeye Inn, the Creekwood Inn and the Aviator Hotel, according to city contracts with the hotels.

The biggest single site, with 140 people as of Wednesday, was the Aviator Hotel, a 250-room Fourth Avenue hotel formerly known as the Anchorage Lofts, and before that the Holiday Inn.

Mark Begich, a former Anchorage mayor and U.S. senator, and Sheldon Fisher, a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration, purchased the hotel last August, Begich said in an interview. The deal had been in the works for several years, he said.

Begich said he did not buy it intending to house homeless Anchorage residents in the hotel, and is doing so only until a redevelopment project can be launched.

“I didn’t buy the hotel for that purpose. We didn’t seek out the business. The city came to us because there was a need,” he said.

The rooms are being rented for $55 per night, plus additional funds for common spaces being used to offer services like medical care to residents, according to a contract supplied by the city.

Bockenstedt said the city approached a variety of hotels about the program, and that only some were interested. The Aviator was among those approached because of its location and size, he said.

That the program has been flying under the radar is a signal of its success, he said.

“If you ask a lot of people, they probably have no idea a hotel close to them is being used to house homeless individuals for this purpose,” he said.

Choices ahead

Sullivan Arena may forestall the future of how Anchorage will offer emergency shelter to homeless people for a few more months. But the future is coming soon and the community has some decisions to make.

“We’re working on it as quickly as possible, trying to identify additional buildings,” Bockenstedt said.

Sauder said the community needs to choose whether it wants a larger mass shelter or a smaller, decentralized approach. Either way, Bean’s Cafe is changing its model to off-site food preparation and delivery, but will also likely remain a shelter provider.

“The community really has to decide, how do they want to address this?” said Sauder. “Do they want to keep it in one concentrated area, one large mass shelter? Or do we want to break it up into 50- or 100-person shelters?”

She walked down a row of cots, stopping to speak with a man twirling his long, gray beard. He said he wanted to leave the Sullivan Arena shelter, go back to a camp near Dimond Boulevard. Could he get some garbage bags to pack up his stuff?

What about a hotel room, Sauder offered. Wouldn’t that be better than sleeping in the woods? He could get some help with a housing application too.

“Let’s talk,” she said. “Let us find you something.”

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.