Anchorage

Homeless residents awake to upheaval and confusion at Anchorage’s largest shelter after abrupt shift in contractors

An abrupt transition of the contractor running Anchorage’s largest homeless shelter on Thursday left its residents jarred and the new contractor scrambling to provide basic services that day.

Anchorage announced earlier this week that 99 Plus 1, a year-old, local for-profit company, would take over operations at the Sullivan Arena emergency shelter on Thursday. Bean’s Cafe, a longtime Anchorage soup kitchen, had been operating the emergency shelter since March 2020 through a sole-source contract with the city.

The changeover happened around midnight. During the transition process, the city and Bean’s Cafe have both expressed frustrations with each other. 99 Plus 1 has also voiced concern over the transition with Bean’s.

Meanwhile, residents awoke Thursday morning to a shelter in upheaval.

Darrel Smith, who said he has stayed at the shelter for about a month and a half, woke up and discovered he had no access to drinking water.

The jugs of water that usually sat out for clients were gone, Smith said.

Nearly everything went with Bean’s as it left — most equipment, supplies, cots to sleep on and even posters from the walls. (The contract with Bean’s ended by Thursday; the nonprofit said it needed to remove all of its materials due to the city’s new contract.) In the weeks leading up to the transition, a health care clinic at Sullivan Arena was shut down, and COVID-19 tests are not being done on-site. 99 Plus 1 staff is not immediately able to provide potentially lifesaving Narcan doses to people who may overdose. (There are still a few medics on site with Narcan.) And as of Thursday, the company had been able to hire just the bare minimum number of staffers, enough to carry it through Sunday.

A little after 9 a.m., Bean’s Cafe staff arrived and began dismantling the hundreds of green cots lining the arena’s floor.

Workers from 99 Plus 1 and the city bagged up the piles of belongings next to the cots, stuffing the items in disarray into black trash bags. They placed those into new, yellow-and-red topped storage bins provided by the city, marking each bin with the bed number.

Litter was scattered across the floor. Vomit pooled next to a trash can in a corner.

A lone man slept on the only remaining cot for hours after the other cots had been taken away,

Zachary Zears, the shelter’s new on-site manager with 99 Plus 1, said Thursday morning that he hadn’t slept in 27 hours. He stood in the arena’s lower entryway, disheveled, directing people to clean and move cots and trying to answer their questions.

He said he intends to rebuild the mass care shelter at the Sullivan and make it better than before.

Until the first week of September, the Sullivan had a makeshift health clinic in the arena’s upstairs mezzanine.

It offered rotating medical and behavioral health services from local hospitals like Providence Alaska Medical Center and other health care providers. Some offered medically assisted treatment for addiction. Others offered COVID-19 testing.

Lisa Sauder, CEO of Bean’s Cafe, said health care providers shut down the clinic because of uncertainty about Sullivan Arena’s future as a shelter.

“They were under the impression that Sullivan was going to actually close Sept. 15. And that combined with staffing shortages, they decided to to pull out in early September. That’s really a shame because that was such a great collaboration,” Sauder said.

Now, there is no on-site testing for COVID-19 at the Sullivan Arena shelter, which the city stood up in response to the pandemic last year. The pandemic increased the need for shelter in Anchorage and made it impossible to continue with the old shelter model of overcrowded, privately run facilities.

Getting another clinic running, and ensuring clients have easy access to COVID-19 testing, is one of Zears’ first priorities, he said.

Still, he said Thursday that there is a lot to do and a long way to go. Zears plans to build it out day by day, he said.

Edwin Vega, a shelter client, approached Zears, asking him when they’d open access to the showers and laundry. Those staying at the shelter who are also working especially need access, Vega said.

“Today was about beds, safety and relationships,” Zears said. “Tomorrow’s going to be about showers. Saturday is going to be about laundry.”

Occasionally, former employees of Bean’s Cafe arrived at the shelter on Thursday, asking for applications. The nonprofit laid off workers when it lost the contract at Sullivan.

Zears told two women that they could start that day at 3 p.m. if they returned with an ID, a Social Security number and a completed application.

99 Plus 1′s contract with the city requires it to provide a 1 to 30 staff-to-client ratio, managers and administrators not included. Zears said he has the bare minimum, and enough to staff safely through Sunday.

They had planned to recruit more staff from Bean’s Cafe before the transition. But the nonprofit asked them not to recruit staff directly on the premises.

When asked whether 99 Plus 1′s staff would be carrying Narcan, a lifesaving opioid overdose medicine, Zears said he wasn’t sure for liability reasons and called the company’s lawyer to ask.

The answer? Zears can train his staff in Narcan use only if the city explicitly asks 99 Plus 1 to do so.

Zears began pursuing getting access to Narcan Thursday. In a statement Friday, a spokesman for the mayor’s office said the municipality has “continued to keep medics on station at the Sullivan Arena 24-7” who “are fully qualified to administer Narcan.”

Overdoses happen at Sullivan Arena weekly, Sauder said, and Bean’s Cafe staff carried Narcan for that reason.

Smith, in his month-and-a-half living at the Sullivan, said he’d already seen two deaths.

Smith stood nearby as workers removed cots. With a group of friends, he watched and waited to get a new city-issued bin to pack away his things. Some shelter clients sat on the floor against walls, waiting with piles of clothes, bags and other items. A few found chairs to sit and wait.

Most of the rumors about the transition circulating among the 390 or so people using the shelter each day hadn’t come true, Smith said — they hadn’t been kicked out of Sullivan Arena for the day, and hot meals still arrived, assuaging their worries that they wouldn’t be fed for a few days.

Smith wondered aloud whether he would get a new cot that day, and whether he would be able to access his things.

By 5 p.m. Thursday, the new cots — aluminum and green fabric army cots from REI — were still stacked in boxes, not yet set up.

The city hasn’t yet explained why 99 Plus 1 won the contract during the bidding process or why the transition from Bean’s Cafe to the new contractor happened without an organized handover.

The mayor’s office hadn’t yet responded on Thursday to questions about the bidding process timeline, which began just one month before Bean’s Cafe’s contract was set to expire.

On Tuesday, the Assembly approved a request from the mayor’s office to fast-track the contract, so 99 Plus 1 could take over on Thursday.

Bean’s Cafe is still providing food there through Sunday.

“We want everybody to be well taken care of and make sure that everybody has food and shelter,” Sauder said.

The city this week put out an emergency request for bid to make up the gap in food service, which went to Bean’s, until the longer-term food contract begins in a few days.

The city did not respond by Thursday evening to questions about why it did not have a plan for food in place until just before that contract expired, or why drinking water was not available at the shelter for most of Thursday, aside from one water fountain.

Around 5 p.m., staff brought water jugs into Sullivan Arena.

Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said by text message that the way Bean’s Cafe departed the shelter was a “poor way to leave” and said they left the place “severely trashed.”

Bean’s left it without any toilet paper and locks on portable toilets had to be cut off Thursday morning, and they returned faulty keys, so the new provider couldn’t access some supplies, Young said.

Sauder said Bean’s Cafe had nothing to do with the portable toilets, as they are run under a different contract with the port-a-potty company. She also said that Bean’s had to demobilize the shelter.

“We had to remove all of our materials,” Sauder said. “They made it clear in the RFP that they were providing the cots, the totes, the locks for the totes — all of those things. So we removed all of our property that we had purchased. And I don’t know what else we should have done in that situation.”

Daily News photojournalist Loren Holmes contributed reporting to this story.

Clarification: This story has been updated to include that there are emergency medics on site who have access to Narcan. Previously, many Bean’s employees carried Narcan.

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