In early October, Shayna Gurtler Rowe went to pick her father up at Sullivan Arena and found him in a frightening condition.
“When I saw him, it scared me so bad,” she said. “It took my breath away. He literally looked like he was dying.”
Gregory Alan Rowe, 62, was wheeled out of Anchorage’s large homeless shelter to her on a stretcher, she said. He was wearing soiled clothing and had visibly lost weight.
He couldn’t lift his body up and was incoherent, Gurtler Rowe said. She later learned he was down to 145 pounds. Rowe stands 6 feet 4 inches tall.
“The medic kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry, we had no idea he was in this condition,’ ” she said.
Rowe had come to Alaska from Tennessee on an open-ended trip in September, “flying by the seat of my britches,” he said, and quickly ended up at the shelter.
His daughter, Gurtler Rowe, also from Tennessee, had planned to meet him. She was driving and taking the ferry to Alaska to start a new job as tribal administrator for the Interior Alaska community of Nenana, with an arrival in October.
Despite Rowe having lived at Sullivan Arena for more than a month, no one seemed to know his name, she said. His cot had someone else’s name on it.
At a hospital hours later, Rowe was diagnosed with sepsis, a dangerous infection that can kill in hours, and COVID-19 pneumonia, according to his daughter. He spent more than a week in the hospital. Now released, he is recovering.
“I got out by the skin of my teeth. Shayna showed up just in time,” Gregory Rowe said in a phone interview Wednesday. “If she had been one day later, I don’t think I would have lived.”
Gurtler Rowe said she contacted city officials and news media because she was shocked by how her sick her father became while living at Anchorage’s large homeless shelter, and how seemingly no one intervened.
“I am furious and horrified that other people at the Sullivan are in the same or worse condition,” she wrote in an email.
City officials say they learned of Gurtler Rowe’s complaints on Oct. 7 and sent the head of the Anchorage Health Department to the shelter “immediately.”
The city told the contractor currently running the shelter, 99 Plus One Inc., to make changes, according to Corey Allen Young, a spokesman for the city.
Those included: having shelter staff wear uniforms, providing “continuous” monitoring of the facility by foot patrol, insisting on a staff to client ratio of 1:30 or less, requiring a shelter manager work on-site evenings and weekends for “additional staff and facility supervision” and clients wearing masks and distancing while in the shelter, according to Young.
“What happened to this client should not happen to anyone,” Young wrote.
Officials from 99 Plus One Inc. had no immediate comment on the situation. Joe Cizek, co-owner, said the company’s contract requires it to refer all media inquiries to the municipality.
In general, large shelters are the wrong place for medically fragile and sick people, said Jasmine Boyle, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. It seemed clear that Rowe’s condition must have been overlooked in some way. That’s one of the reasons experts “strongly advocate for smaller shelters” where the staff-to-client ratio is lower, she said.
Rowe is Alaska Native but was adopted by a couple who moved the family to Tennessee, where he has lived for most of his life.
He reconnected with family members in Dillingham in recent years, and decided to take his daughter up on the offer of a plane ticket to Alaska in September.
Rowe arrived in Anchorage in early September.
He has chronic health troubles including a traumatic brain injury and past strokes, according to his daughter, but was well enough to get to Alaska independently. When his housing fell through, he went to the shelter.
Rowe says he told medical staff he was plagued with illness he believes came from being exposed to ticks in Tennessee. He doesn’t remember much about the weeks that followed. He knows he stopped getting up for meals and stayed on his cot.
“I was in and out, incoherent,” he said.
He doesn’t recall interacting with staff at the shelter, which saw an abrupt management transition from Bean’s Cafe to a new company, 99 Plus One, shortly after Rowe arrived. The transition was rough, with just days between the handoff and residents reporting shortages of cots, water and other necessities at first.
Meanwhile, Rowe was withering away.
“I was just staying on my bunk,” he said. “Just trying to eat and stay alive. I wasn’t bringing attention to myself.”
Other shelter guests helped him. One man in particular — last name Mills — brought food and checked on him.
“He was making sure I had the very basics of what I needed,” Rowe said. Rowe says he would like to thank the man, if he’s out there.
His daughter, who says she was speaking to him dozens of times per day to prompt him for everyday activities like meals, was on the ferry headed north and at times didn’t have cell reception. She could tell things were going badly.
“I would wake up on the ferry in a panic that my dad was going to be dead when I got to him,” she said.
When Gurtler Rowe arrived for her father on the evening of Oct. 7, she was on the phone as medics inside were getting him ready to leave the shelter on a stretcher.
“I was on the phone the whole time they were picking them up, getting him on the stretcher,” she said. Gurtler Rowe says she overheard staff ask if a “tub of urine” near the cot belonged to her father, and he said no.
“Obviously that’s not sanitary,” she said.
Rowe is recovering after his hospitalization. His daughter says she’s working on getting him eating enough. They made the long drive to Fairbanks, where they are now awaiting housing for her new job as the tribal administrator of Nenana.
Rowe is philosophical about what happened at the Sullivan.
“I have trouble thinking that any of the Bean’s Cafe or the 99 Plus One was malicious,” Rowe said. “There was a transition. And I kind of ... maybe slipped through the cracks.”