Anchorage leaders want to stop using Sullivan Arena as a mass care homeless shelter by June 30, but numerous challenges are mounting against the city’s timeline to find new accommodations.
Currently, the city is fast-tracking multiple projects laid out in a plan negotiated between Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration and the Assembly. With up to roughly 500 people staying in the Sullivan daily, the additional 400 in the city’s non-congregate shelter sites at hotels, and more living outside in illegal camps, shelter or housing is needed for about 1,000 people.
“It’s ambitious to think that we would get everything done by the end of June. I think it’s a hopeful timeline,” said Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the Committee on Housing and Homelessness. “Are we actually going to be able to meet it? There are, I think, a lot of moving parts. And it’s questionable whether we’ll be able to meet it or not.”
Sullivan Arena has been in use as an emergency shelter since March 2020, when the city stood up its mass care operations in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, city leaders say Sullivan Arena must soon return to its former uses.
Building the capacity to shelter or house hundreds between now and June is “an enormous challenge,” acknowledged Owen Hutchinson, spokesman with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, the organization at the crux of the effort.
Last November, the Assembly unanimously passed a resolution on homelessness, a compromise with the Bronson administration that outlined an agreed-upon “exit strategy” for Sullivan Arena. It followed a monthslong negotiation process, which is continuing, after a clash over a previous Bronson proposal to construct a 450-person temporary shelter in East Anchorage.
Now, members of the Anchorage Assembly, the Bronson administration, homelessness providers, philanthropies, businesses, landlords and others are all involved in the plan to set up a reimagined homelessness response system for the city.
While the two branches of city government — so often at odds — have agreed on a plan to build up an array of services, a lot of work still needs to happen before June 30.
Bronson at a news conference earlier this month said his administration is working with the Assembly and sticking to the terms of the agreement.
“We’re going to work to the best of our abilities to satisfy that as quickly as possible, the Sullivan Arena specifically,” Bronson said. “We need a place to put people. We are not going to dump people on the street, whether it’s springtime, summertime or wintertime — it’s not going to happen.”
Sullivan adds capacity
The city in December increased the Sullivan shelter’s capacity from 420 to 510, rearranging cots to fit more people in.
Municipal Manager Amy Demboski told the Assembly by email that “demand exceeded authorized capacity” and that that was the sole reason for the change.
Now, with more available space in shelters, the city is conducting winter camp abatement for the first time and directing people to the Sullivan and other homelessness services, a policy that has raised concerns from advocates and homeless residents.
Meanwhile, at Sullivan Arena, residents still sleep on small cots spaced 5 feet apart along the chilly concrete arena floor.
For bathrooms, they use a row of outdoor portable toilets surrounded by snow, with a few other portable toilets inside and outside the arena.
Some residents are disabled or are in wheelchairs, and struggle with the snow and icy conditions outside Sullivan Arena.
For now, some residents are wondering where exactly they will end up once the Sullivan shelter, open for nearly two years, finally closes.
A short timeline for a big project
In its plan, the city outlined five types of housing and facilities needed: a 200-person shelter and navigation center for single adults in East Anchorage; a 120-bed “special population” shelter for women and LGBTQ individuals, also with a navigation center; a 120-bed “complex care” facility for medically fragile people; increased substance misuse treatment capacity with housing; and about 200 workforce and permanent supportive housing units.
All of the pieces do not need to be in place for the Sullivan mass care site to close, according to Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor.
But the 200-bed navigation center and shelter must come online by the end of June or “an alternative will be found,” he said.
The mayor’s office did not respond to a question asking what the alternatives are.
In January the city put out a request for proposal for construction and general contractor services for the center, which is to be built at the same spot Bronson had previously proposed — a piece of city-owned land, currently the Anchorage Police Department’s evidence vehicle lot, near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads.
But that plan faces complications. The RFP process is still underway, and the city’s purchasing department has yet to recommend a contractor. While the Assembly in December set aside $2.8 million for its design, it still needs millions more in funding.
And before any construction can move ahead, the lot, which houses more than 500 vehicles, must be moved. Last year, the Assembly received conflicting estimates for the cost of relocating that lot — a $4 million estimate from the police department, and an estimate of a little more than $659,000 from the Bronson administration.
Also, so far, the city hasn’t identified a site for the shelter for women and LGBTQ individuals. Whether that needs to be ready to go for the Sullivan to close is not yet clear, according to the administration.
“That matter is still in the facilitation process. Until a consensus is met, we cannot talk about this,” Young said.
Hotels into housing
In December, the city also set aside $3.2 million toward the possible purchase of two hotels, the Sockeye Inn in Midtown for a 120-bed complex care shelter, and the Barratt Inn in Spenard to provide about 90 units of workforce and supportive housing.
Meg Zaletel, interim executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness and a Midtown Assembly member, said bringing facilities like those online usually takes a year or more.
“And we’re putting them together in less than six months,” Zaletel said.
The city expects to complete the purchase of the Sockeye by the end of March. It’s intended to address a longstanding gap in the homelessness system and care for those with medical concerns and disabilities that make life in a congregate shelter like the Sullivan untenable.
As of the end of January, the city was still conducting “due diligence” on the Barratt Inn property as it is undergoing “significant renovation,” according to an update from the negotiation group.
The city also hopes to move more than 400 people into housing such as private apartments, including through a landlord housing partnership spearheaded by United Way.
Whether that number needs to be met before Sullivan closes is also still under negotiation, Young said.
Although there is a large pool of funding in rental assistance and housing vouchers, the city and social service providers are contending with low vacancy rates and high rents across Anchorage in the effort to house people.
“It is really difficult to be able to pay fair market rents in Anchorage right now. We layer that with vacancy rates, and we really see why we’re getting into a housing crisis,” Zaletel told the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness this week.
Full funding still a challenge
The administration and Assembly recently requested $15 million from the state to help fund three of the projects, $5 million each for the East Anchorage shelter, the shelter for women and LGBTQ people and for workforce and supportive housing.
“If the state doesn’t give us the $15 million that we requested, that’s going to be $15 million we’ve got to find somewhere else,” Rivera said.
So far, the collective effort has garnered $9.5 million. The fund, held by the Alaska Community Foundation, includes $3.5 million in donations from Rasmuson Foundation, Chugach Alaska and Calista, and another $6 million from the city. Weidner Apartment Homes and Providence have committed another $2 million toward the fund.
While money to purchase buildings for services is there, finding owners and organizations to operate the services and finding long-term funding is a much greater challenge, Michele Brown, senior fellow with the Rasmuson Foundation, told the Assembly’s homelessness committee.
“This issue has really come to a head around the facilitated plan,” Brown said. “And while we are able to raise capital dollars to acquire buildings, what we are finding is that ... potential building owners and operators are wary of stepping in.”
Still, the community effort between the city, providers, businesses, property owners and landlords over the last few months “has been extraordinary,” said Hutchinson with the Coalition to End Homelessness.
“A lot of dang work is being done,” Zaletel said. “And most of it has to happen behind the scenes because standing up new projects is a lot of work. It takes a lot of expertise and a lot of collaboration and we’re working really hard, really fast.”