Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration is shaking up leadership of the city’s mass homeless care shelter at Sullivan Arena.
The city’s mass care branch chief, Shawn Hays, said she was fired Wednesday. Another Anchorage official who had previously overseen operations at the Sullivan, Bob Doehl, confirmed on Thursday he submitted his resignation to the city this week.
The administration also moved oversight of the Sullivan and mass care operations from Doehl’s Development Services Department to the Anchorage Health Department earlier this month.
Hays, whose job was to oversee the city’s operations at Sullivan Arena and the city’s non-congregate shelter sites, said the administration did not cite a reason for her firing but said she was told that as an executive, she served at the pleasure of the mayor.
Her firing occurred on the same day the Daily News reported that a man who stayed at Sullivan Arena for about a month had been found languishing there in a near-death state by his daughter. Gregory Alan Rowe was wheeled out of Anchorage’s large homeless shelter on a stretcher in early October and was later diagnosed with sepsis and COVID-19 pneumonia at a hospital. He was recently released.
Bronson’s office on Thursday confirmed that Hays is no longer an employee of the municipality. Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor’s office, said “we don’t comment on personnel matters as part of HR policy.”
Hays was an executive employee, which means she served at the pleasure of the mayor, according to city code.
“I was totally blindsided yesterday,” Hays said. She said she didn’t know if she was being fired over the situation with Rowe.
“They said that you work at the pleasure of the mayor, and that the mayor does not need your services anymore,” Hays said.
Hays said she believes Rowe was “caught in the mix” during a transition in management of the Sullivan last month, when the city ended its contract with Bean’s Cafe and a new, for-profit company, 99 Plus 1, took over.
That abrupt transition left the new contractor scrambling to provide basic services in the first few days for shelter clients, such as access to drinking water, showers and laundry facilities.
“We’re extremely saddened by what happened,” Hays said. “We worked to have things in place so this doesn’t happen again. It was just an unfortunate situation that he got caught in between a transition of contractors, but 99 Plus 1 has made steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”
Hays started working for the city as its quarantine and isolation manager in March, she said. In May, she took the position of mass care branch chief under the administration of former Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson. Her previous position was not filled, she said. Since taking the position and the transition to the health department, Hays said resources for overseeing and operating mass care had been whittled down from six employees to two, including herself, she said.
“They brought us down to two people overseeing 35 contracts and seven different locations with up to 800 people,” Hays said. “Two of us.”
Young said a full-time health department employee who previously held the position will take over as mass care branch chief, but he did not specify who that person is.
In a letter to Assembly members sent Thursday, member Meg Zaletel, chair of the Committee on Housing and Homelessness, expressed concerns that only one contracted person is now in charge of mass care, now that Hays has been fired.
Zaletel also voiced concern over the incident that left Rowe gravely ill and said the Assembly must “figure out where the system broke down and address it immediately.”
Young said that city oversight has been “dramatically increased and will remain elevated until we are satisfied that we are treating our neighbors in the way we would our own family.”
“The Administration was appalled by the reports of unacceptable care out of the Sullivan and we have reacted strongly,” Young said by email.
The health department director, city’s homelessness coordinator, representatives of the fire and police department and others have gone to the Sullivan repeatedly, “to evaluate conditions and take corrective measures,” he said.
Operations of the city’s mass care shelter have undergone other major shifts in recent weeks, including changes in management, city oversight and leadership.
On Oct. 1, oversight of the city’s mass care operations switched from the Development Services Department and its director, Doehl, to the Anchorage Health Department and its newly appointed director, Joe Gerace. Mass care includes the Sullivan Arena shelter and non-congregate shelter and quarantine sites at hotels around the city, currently housing nearly 800 people, according to city data.
Doehl submitted his resignation to the city this week, and his last day as director of development services is Nov. 3, according to the mayor’s office. Doehl said he is resigning for personal reasons.
“The administration felt that the health department was a better fit than the Development Services Department that frankly exists for building permits and subdivision rules and water and septic tank installations,” Doehl said.
The city’s stood up the shelter at the Sullivan in response to the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and when the city’s disaster declaration ended in May, its management was rolled into Development Services while other responses, such as COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, were rolled into the health department, Doehl said.
Bronson appointed Gerace as the new health department director in September. The Assembly is scheduled to vote on whether to confirm Gerace’s appointment next week.
During a Wednesday work session on Gerace’s confirmation, Assembly member John Weddleton noted that the addition of mass care and homelessness to the health department is a “new big thing” and asked Gerace whether he had the necessary staff to take that on and continue with the rest of the health department’s functions and improvements.
“Are we ready for housing and homelessness? Truthfully, no. Are we properly staffed? Absolutely not yet. Do we have a plan? Yes, sir. Has the plan been executed? Yes, it has,” Gerace said in response to Weddleton’s question.
The Sullivan Arena has been operating as a low-barrier shelter, and clients do not need to be sober to say there.
Zaletel, in her letter to Assembly members, said she had received reports of drastic changes at the Sullivan, including moving away from the low-barrier shelter style and introducing breathalyzers, drug sniffing dogs, armed guards and increased arrests.
“This approach, if implemented, will also exacerbate the trauma of many of the clients accessing the facility undermining the very purpose of mass care,” Zaletel stated.
Young said that the reports of such changes are false.
“The Sullivan has been and will remain low barrier. This statement is contrary to our mission and philosophy of care,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Shawn Hays’ last name.