The Municipality of Anchorage is ending its contract with Bean’s Cafe to run its mass care shelter facility at Sullivan Arena.
Lisa Sauder, Bean’s Cafe CEO, said Friday that the nonprofit’s contract to run the shelter will end Wednesday, Sept. 15.
It wasn’t immediately clear who will run the shelter after that, but a spokesman for Mayor Dave Bronson said the facility will continue operating. The spokesman wouldn’t say why the change was occurring, and said an announcement would be made once negotiations are finished.
Sauder’s organization had been operating the shelter with the city since March 2020, when the arena was mobilized as a mass shelter early in the coronavirus pandemic to allow for social distancing for people experiencing homelessness.
“It has been our pleasure to serve the community, and our clients and to make sure that no one went unsheltered or hungry during COVID and we’re really proud of the work we’ve done,” Sauder said.
The contract change was first reported Friday by the Alaska Landmine.
The city hasn’t said who will be taking over operations at its shelter site or why it is choosing a different operator for its mass shelter.
In August, the mayor’s office put out a request for proposals for a contractor to operate a 400-person mass shelter from Sept. 15 through March 31, 2022, with the option of six one-month extensions. Bean’s, a nonprofit and longtime operator of the city’s largest soup kitchen, submitted a proposal to continue operating the Sullivan Arena shelter.
In a statement emailed Friday, Bronson spokesman Corey Allen Young said the current contract for mass care shelter was scheduled to end Wednesday. The request for proposals “was requested by the Municipality of Anchorage to continue services with an operator. Mayor Bronson is committed to continuing a mass care shelter without delay,” Young said.
He said the city has a plan in place to continue services.
“No clients will have to leave. And there will be staff, beds, food and equivalent services available to clients in the facility on the 16th,” Young said. “In accordance of the (proposal), the Municipality of Anchorage will provide cots. It is our hope that any disruption in service will be minimal. “
Young said the city will make a formal announcement of the new operator next week once the contract is formalized.
As of Friday, Sullivan Arena was providing beds for 361 people experiencing homelessness, with the capacity to shelter a total of 400. The city stood up the facility last year in response to the pandemic as the virus increased the need for shelter and made continuing with the old shelter model — overcrowded, privately run facilities — untenable.
The shelter has served more than 5,000 individuals since opening its doors last year, Sauder said.
As the delta variant continues to sweep through Anchorage and freezing winter weather draws nearer, city leaders and homeless service providers say the need for mass shelter is still acute, though Sullivan Arena was never meant to be a long-term solution. All agree that even more people will need shelter once winter arrives.
City officials and some community members want to see the arena returned to its normal uses as a hockey arena and event venue soon.
Future of the arena as mass shelter
The news of a changing mass shelter operator comes as the city’s negotiation team on homelessness says Anchorage likely needs to continue using the Sullivan facility for the coming months and has pushed dates back for recommending a plan from September to October.
The negotiation team is tasked with planning the city’s short-term mass care and long-term and homelessness response and is composed of three Assembly members and three members of Bronson’s administration, plus two facilitators.
Assembly members now say they expect to have information on a plan available at an Oct. 5 work session and the Oct. 12 Assembly meeting.
Meanwhile, prompted by the date pushback, negotiations this week resulted in conflicting public statements from Bronson and Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant over the process.
On Thursday evening in a statement posted to social media, the mayor called for “action to help our neighbors immediately,” suggesting frustration with the negotiation process so far.
“Despite having met numerous times, no recommended proposals have been brought forward by the working group. In fact, I am told there may not be any recommendations offered until October. Winter is quickly approaching and Anchorage’s most vulnerable need our elected leaders to work together and present solutions,” Bronson said.
In a news conference Friday, Constant said in making that statement, the mayor violated the terms of the negotiation process, though he agrees with the mayor that the issue is urgent and needs a solution as soon as possible.
“Up until the mayor’s little tweet — which he just couldn’t help himself — I thought we had a really great working relationship established between him, his team, and us, this delegation working on behalf of the Assembly,” Constant said. “At this point, there’s a lot of questions.”
That includes whether the team should continue in the process, he said.
“Are you still going to follow the ground rules or return to the ground rules? And if not, then maybe we just need to retreat back to our corners and figure out a new strategy,” Constant said.
In response to Constant’s comments, Young responded that the mayor is frustrated by how slowly the process is going but “is committed to the process as long as the deadlines do not continue to slip.”
“Unless we take action immediately, unfortunately people will die on the streets of Anchorage this winter,” Young said.
He also said the mayor’s remarks were “in no way a violation of the rules of the negotiation process.”
“They simply communicate the sentiments of the mayor following the publication of negotiator-approved talking points stating that deadlines have slipped again till October 5th,” Young said.
Assembly member John Weddleton, part of the negotiation team, gave an update during a committee meeting Thursday. He said the team’s most likely viable scenario is to keep the city’s mass shelter at Sullivan Arena in place for now while the negotiation team homes in on the city’s other best options.
The team has also pushed out the timeline for making official recommendations on plans from September to mid-October while a local consulting firm, The Boutet Co., provides an independent cost and site analysis on the most viable options.
Bronson and his homelessness coordinator, Dr. John Morris, had proposed building a large temporary shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage for 400 people that could shelter up to 1,000 in an emergency.
They proposed the center should be constructed with semi-permanent domed tents from a company called Sprung Structures and located on a lot immediately east of the old Anchorage Police Department headquarters at East Tudor and Elmore roads.
But most Assembly members prefer smaller, multiple shelter sites, and the Assembly has twice rejected proposals for the large site from the administration. Then in July, the Assembly passed a resolution initiating the formal facilitated negotiation process.
Constant said the costs of the proposed shelter were ballooning — starting around $5 million and quickly rising to about $20 million, with more money needed to finish and run the facility.
“The mayor’s initial proposal, which sounded great to a lot of people in the public, came to us with no spreadsheet of costs, no detailed analysis of what it would cost so we could understand how we would pay for it,” he said.
The Boutet Co.’s independent analysis has shown that the mayor’s proposal did not meet the structural needs for the site in terms of seismic safety, snow load and wind, Constant said.
“The Sprung designs made by a Lower 48 firm did not meet and cannot meet, as designed, the seismic needs for that site,” Constant said. “So the proposal that the mayor had put before us with no bottom line and no spreadsheet detail on the cost of how we would achieve it — so how could we find the money to pay for it — can’t even be used because our building safety wouldn’t allow it.”
Bronson and Morris have remained adamant that the Tudor and Elmore proposal is the city’s best option.
Constant said that steel could be used in the structure instead of aluminum, but it would be far more expensive. He also said he is still committed to the negotiation process with the Bronson administration.
The negotiation team has narrowed possible sites for a mass shelter to seven:
• Sullivan Arena.
• 3330 Denali St., previously Johnson Tire building.
• 550 Bragaw St., previously Pacific Northern Academy and Williwaw Elementary School.
• 4468 Gambell St., the former Alaska Club near the intersection of Gambell Street and Tudor Road.
• Tudor and Elmore roads site, the Anchorage Police Department’s evidence vehicle lot, where Bronson has proposed building the temporary shelter.
• Tudor and Elmore roads, near the Tozier sled dog track west of the APD evidence vehicle lot.
• West 54th Avenue, a former location of the Clare House.