As temperatures plunge, demand grows in Anchorage’s overburdened mass shelter

A long cold spell that has gripped Anchorage for weeks is pushing the city’s emergency shelter for unhoused people to the edge.

On Tuesday night, 505 people slept inside the mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena, near downtown Anchorage, according to city data. That’s 105 people over the shelter’s official capacity.

An additional warming tent, set up in the parking lot, went up last week. Anchorage weather has been unseasonably cold this month, remaining in single digits or falling below zero for much of November, according to the National Weather Service.

The Anchorage Health Department has said the shelter’s operators, a new, for-profit business called 99 Plus One, have not been turning people away.

“We have been able to accommodate all guests at the Sullivan and will continue to do so,” said Robert McNeily, a spokesperson for the department.

While the Sullivan is over capacity, the emergency shelter system “is functioning,” said Owen Hutchinson, a spokesperson for the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “This is emergency shelter. It is not the ideal place to receive services long term or place to stay long term.”

Shelter operators “have responded to the cold snap as best they can,” Hutchinson said.

On Wednesday morning, a Daily News reporter and photographer entered Sullivan Arena unannounced in order to observe conditions at the public shelter. The journalists followed standard sign-in procedures and were allowed inside.

A grid of cots covered the main floor. On the mezzanine level, dozens of people slept on thin blue mats. A few lay directly on the concrete. One man used a garbage bag for a pillow. People’s belongings and trash, including food and drinks, cluttered narrow corridors.

Employees of 99 Plus One were visible, wearing blue vests marked with their names and titles. The contractor is required to keep a client-staff ratio of 30 to 1. There was a line for portable bathrooms outdoors. Indoor bathrooms appeared to be fenced off. A few people lined up to microwave pre-made meals delivered by Bean’s Cafe, the nonprofit that ran the shelter until September and still delivers meals.

While employees could be seen working to refill soap stations and clean floors, it seemed difficult to keep up with the growing mass of discarded belongings, unfinished meals and other detritus.

Posted on the wall was a list of rules, with penalties for breaking them: Sexual assault and sex trafficking, drug dealing, arson or possession of a firearm would lead to immediate discharge and a call to police, according to the sign. “Tier II” infractions such as possessing a weapon, physical assault, drug use inside the shelter, theft, threatening or disrespecting staff and “behaviors affecting others safety” could lead to ejection for shorter periods, from two days to two hours.

The health department did not answer a question about how many people have been barred from Sullivan Arena.

“There is a policy being revised today regarding those who are expelled from the Sullivan Arena and it is broken into three tiers regarding the severity of the situation and with what is in accordance with existing criminal law in the Municipality of Anchorage,” wrote McNeily, the health department spokesperson, in an email. “A guest or client can be removed if code of conduct and/or infraction violations are committed. "

Several people waited in line outside an area marked as “The Hub” to speak with case managers. Starting next week, navigators from Bean’s Cafe will be able to visit the shelter to work with clients, said executive director Lisa Sauder.

A chain-link fence had gone up in the parking lot, cutting off parking lot access to the Ben Boeke Ice Arena and a corridor that leads to the Chester Creek trail.

With days of temperatures in the single digits and dipping below zero, the warming tent opened as a place with “no curfew” that people could come for a respite from the weather. People who’ve been kicked out of the shelter or who don’t want to be in the building can also warm up there, according to McNeily.

Staff from the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness visited the warming tents on Nov. 20 to take temperature readings of the air and ground, said Owen Hutchinson, a spokesperson with the group.

“The tent was warm,” he said. “The ground was dry and warm.”

The last outdoor death, defined by the Anchorage Police Department as a person found dead outdoors with no fixed address, happened on Nov. 16, when police found a 55-year-old man dead in a tent in a backyard in the Muldoon area. Police said the death was not suspicious.

Sullivan Arena has served as the city’s main shelter for unhoused people in Anchorage since the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020. In mid-September, the city ended its contract with Bean’s Cafe to manage the shelter. A new, for-profit company called 99 Plus One took over management.

The transition was chaotic, with shelter guests reporting a lack of water and cots.

For the initial contract, which ran through Oct. 31, the city paid $371,883. The cost depends on the number of clients the shelter serves. The city did not respond to a question asking how much 99 Plus One is being paid monthly now, based on current shelter occupancy.

In October, the Daily News reported the story of a Tennessee woman who said she went to pick her father up from the shelter, where he’d been staying for more than a month, and found him near death.

The city called the man’s treatment unacceptable and said it had pushed 99 Plus One to make immediate changes, such as “continued foot patrols” and requiring employees to wear uniforms.

“What happened to this client should not happen to anyone,” a city spokesman said.

The same day the story was published, the administration fired Shawn Hays, the mass care branch chief charged with overseeing the shelter. Later, 99 Plus One’s original on-site manager Zach Zears, was fired.

Then John Morris, the city’s homeless coordinator, resigned on Oct. 28. He has not publicly explained why he resigned just five months after taking on the position.

“I regret that I have failed to convince you to take what I feel is the correct course,” Morris wrote in his resignation letter to the mayor.

“He resigned for personal reasons,” said city spokesman Corey Allen Young.

The city has not named a new homeless coordinator.

At the end of October, Bean’s Cafe was in talks with the city to resume management of the shelter, said Lisa Sauder, the executive director. But that didn’t happen: The city instead extended 99 Plus One’s contract through the end of the year. In November, 99 Plus One hired Shawn Hays — the person fired in October from her municipal job overseeing the shelter — to be the on-site manager for Sullivan Arena. The city division that oversees homelessness response has seen other recent staff turnover.

According to the city, a negotiation process between the administration of Mayor Dave Bronson and the Anchorage Assembly crafting a long-term plan to tackle homelessness was a success, and that planning is moving forward. The proposal involves building multiple small shelters. But that’s a way off.

For the foreseeable future, Sullivan Arena will remain the main place where people in Anchorage seek shelter from the cold. According to McNeily, about 40 people arrive every day.