In the parking lot outside Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena on Monday afternoon, a man riding a bicycle stopped when he saw Lisa Sauder, CEO of Bean’s Cafe, standing outside.
Bean’s has a contract through Sept. 15 to run the mass homeless shelter currently in the arena, which can sleep up to 400 people.
“He said to me, ‘I’m not homeless right now. But I may be by September, and where am I going to go? Am I going to have a place to be?’ ” Sauder said.
As Anchorage charts a path forward for its homelessness response, uncertainty hangs over the Sullivan Arena mass care shelter and whether the city will dismantle it in September, a goal the Anchorage Assembly set earlier this year.
Sauder said that uncertainty is “stressful for everyone.”
“We are all concerned about it,” she said. “And I think the sooner we have a plan in place, the better for all involved. For the community, for the staff, for the clients — for everybody.”
The city stood up the shelter early last year as the COVID-19 pandemic made the old shelter model, which housed people in close quarters, unsafe, and as the city suddenly saw thousands more people needing temporary shelter.
Since opening in 2020, it has sheltered just under 5,000 individuals, Sauder said.
Sullivan Arena was never meant to be a long-term solution. Still, as Mayor Dave Bronson and the Assembly have yet to agree on a longer-term plan, some city officials have suggested keeping the Sullivan Arena shelter open beyond September.
As they debate how to proceed, whether the arena will remain open depends on several factors. They include what the need for shelter capacity this coming winter will be, how the city can fund its homelessness response and what other shelter options might be feasible.
With the plan in flux, it’s not clear whether hockey games and trade shows will be held in the city-owned arena this fall. It’s also not entirely clear when the federal funding source currently financing it will run out.
Some in Anchorage are eager to have the Sullivan returned to its intended use as an events and hockey arena.
“But bottom line, we’ve got capacity here for 400 people. And unless that can be immediately replaced, we’ve got to protect human life as a priority,” Sauder said.
As of Tuesday, there were 318 people staying in Sullivan Arena, with room for 82 more, according to city data.
Another 348 people were sheltered through the city’s “non-congregate” shelter program — hotel rooms — leaving 28 spaces available. Privately run shelters for adults, Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, the Brother Francis Shelter and the Downtown Hope Center, were all at capacity.
Officials need to estimate how many people will need shelter in the future to come up with the best transition plan, and that’s not simple, either. Bronson has said he expects the need for shelter to increase as more people want to be indoors during the winter’s freezing weather. Homeless providers and experts agree that the need will increase, as it does every winter.
“The trend has remained that way for decades,” said Jasmine Boyle, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
Still, Boyle said a good estimate of the need for shelter capacity is “not an easy number.”
“What is the actual demand? How did that change during COVID? How do we anticipate it will continue to change in the next three or four months? And then what do we already have in motion that will mitigate that?” Boyle said.
Boyle said the coalition expects to present its estimate to the Assembly and the mayor’s administration during a housing and homelessness committee meeting on Wednesday.
FEMA funding ‘ultimately the president’s decision’
For now, the city is largely footing the bill for the shelter sites it stood up due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes the mass care facility at Sullivan Arena, and its “non-congregate” shelter program housing people in hotel rooms. But city officials expect Anchorage will get federal reimbursement for those shelters through FEMA’s public assistance.
The city can get a 100% reimbursement from FEMA through the end of September if its programs qualify. After that, it falls to a 75% match, according to Trevor Stanley, Public Assistance Program branch chief with FEMA.
The remaining 25% would be paid by a local match from the state, which the state has confirmed it will pay, according to Bob Doehl, with the city’s Development Services Department.
Still, the FEMA reimbursement is not necessarily guaranteed, and it’s not clear how long the federal funding will be available. The funding is tied to the federal declaration of a national emergency, which President Joe Biden extended in February, but he has not said when it will end.
Doehl said by email that funds last six months after a declaration ends “to the extent they are reasonable and necessary to respond to the COVID disaster or its effects.”
“It’s always up in the air with FEMA,” Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said.
That is normal with FEMA’s disaster relief funds and the city expects the reimbursement to come through, he said.
Anchorage is paying about an estimated $2 million a month for the Sullivan, hotel rooms and other homeless services, according to the mayor’s office. That includes about $28,000 a day for Sullivan Arena.
Bryan Fisher, director of Alaska’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said there is “a whole bunch of nuance” when it comes to eligibility for FEMA funds.
“They do have to demonstrate that the key factor for those pandemic responses is that the need and the costs associated with that need are directly related to COVID-19,” Fisher said.
Jeremy Zidek, spokesman with the state’s emergency management division, said the division can’t say what exactly will be reimbursed and how much because it does not have all the necessary information yet, such as how much the city would be spending to provide the homeless services if there wasn’t a disaster.
“Addressing homelessness issues is not in and of itself a disaster,” Fisher said. “So the regular dealing with the homeless population in Anchorage would not be factored into this. It’s all about the need to shelter folks because of the pandemic, and all of that has to be hashed out between the municipality and FEMA and our folks.”
Stanley said FEMA is looking at extending the 100% match past September, but said that it is “ultimately the president’s decision.”
The reimbursement is for programs that qualify — or even just pieces of programs that meet the criteria, Stanley said. Often, FEMA sends a chunk of money first, about half the anticipated cost.
FEMA has already sent more than $4.5 million to Anchorage for its non-congregate shelter, but it’s not yet clear if its part or all of its homeless shelter programs will qualify for reimbursement, Stanley said.
“We’re going to continue to work to rationally tie the mass shelter to the COVID pandemic and ideally then we’ll be reimbursed,” Constant said. “There’s no guarantees ever with FEMA. The one guarantee with FEMA is you’re going to have to fight for your money.”
Makeshift, but working
Inside the mass shelter on Monday, rows of green cots stretched across arena’s 32,000-square-foot main floor, which shelters 214 single men. Some dozed beneath blankets and the bright arena lights. Some had left to go to day jobs.
Upstairs, many people received food from what is normally The Glacier Grill concessions stand, where Bean’s now serves pre-made meals and snacks throughout the day.
In another corner of the arena’s upstairs mezzanine, a makeshift health clinic has been set up with brown tarps hanging from aluminum poles, separating the clinic into a few exam rooms.
The clinic offers rotating medical and behavioral health services from local hospitals like Providence Alaska Medical Center and other providers. In one area, people can get medically assisted treatment for addiction.
Even though the clinic is makeshift, ”it’s working,” Sauder said. “People are getting care, we’re keeping people out of the emergency departments and we’re getting people connected with primary care.”
Another section of the Sullivan houses 136 cots where women, couples and LGBTQ people can sleep.
Navigators at the Sullivan help clients get their immediate needs addressed and connect them to housing opportunities, treatment and other resources, Sauder said.
Only about 25% of those at the Sullivan are using the navigation service, Sauder said. Sauder wants it to be 100%.
“We don’t have enough housing, we don’t have enough treatment, we don’t have enough behavioral health support. But we want to make sure that we’re getting the people with the greatest needs to the best resource,” Sauder said.
More than one backup plan needed
That kind of navigation system is something that Bronson and his homeless coordinator, Dr. John Morris, have proposed implementing at a purpose-built mass homeless shelter in East Anchorage.
The Anchorage Assembly last week refused to consider the administration’s plan, citing rising costs and a rushed timeline. Bronson recently turned down the purchase of the former Alaska Club building in Midtown for a homeless shelter.
Assembly member Meg Zaletel, chair of the housing and homelessness committee, said the city still has about $2.5 million in funds budgeted that it can use to stand up a 150-person shelter somewhere in Anchorage.
Zaletel and two other Assembly members in a letter to the mayor suggested continuing to use Sullivan Arena as a mass care facility through the winter, or finding another city-owned building to use. They also suggested piloting Morris’ navigation center at the Sullivan or somewhere else.
Also, before the arena can transition back to its former uses, it will need an estimated $225,000 in repairs, according to the mayor’s office.
It needs fixes such as cleaning up graffiti, fixing broken windows, doors, wiring, sheetrock and missing fixtures, and needs cleaning, among other things, according to Matt Shuckerow, interim spokesman for the mayor. Repairs will take two to three weeks after the shelter is dismantled, though some can begin before people leave the arena, he said.
Anchorage’s new junior hockey team, the Anchorage Wolverines, have been expecting to use the facility come October.
(The ownership group for the Wolverines includes Aaron Schutt, Ryan Binkley, Kai Binkley Sims, John Ellsworth Jr. and Jay Frawner. Binkley and Sims are part of the Binkley Co., which also owns the Anchorage Daily News.)
Multiple attempts to find out whether other events had been planned were not answered by the city and ASM Global, the company managing Sullivan Arena events.
“For events at Sullivan Arena we are in standby mode until we get confirmed dates of an exit with the shelter, so nothing is confirmed at this time,” Jon Dyson, the arena’s general manager, said by email.
Now, the Assembly and administration must come to the table and find a compromise, because the city needs a winter shelter plan — and fast, Boyle said.
“If we could get the shelter solution agreed upon, and moving quickly — I’m talking like a week or two — I think that it gives all of us time to work with the Assembly, the administration and our stakeholders to think about the bigger plan and the longer term, actually getting past the emergency,” Boyle said.
Boyle said the city needs a plan A, B and C.
“To me, a smart and and feasible plan identifies what we think is the best option in partnership with the administration, the Assembly and our providers — the best option for this fall — and then a couple of backup plans in case need outweighs our current projections and/or something else happens,” Boyle said.
Sullivan ‘sent me towards some really good resources’
Christine Kuzma, 63, on Monday had been at the Sullivan four days. She said that a problem with alcohol led her to lose her home last November, but she has since gotten sober.
Kuzma, who grew up in Anchorage, said this was her first time experiencing homelessness.
At Sullivan Arena, Kuzma has a clean place to stay where she feels safe, with food, showers and good security, she said.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “But the Sullivan Arena navigation system sent me towards some really good resources.”