Anchorage

Assembly members warn of a humanitarian crisis ahead of Sullivan Arena shelter closure, clashing with Bronson administration on path forward

Sullivan Arena homeless shelter

At the end of the day Thursday, Sullivan Arena’s nearly 2 1/2 years as Anchorage’s primary homeless shelter will be over, for good. On Wednesday, there were still more than 100 people inside with nowhere to go.

At a security station by the front doors, a woman stuffed a sleeping pad into a duffel bag. She said she was going to be sleeping at the Downtown Hope Center.

“They’re putting people outside,” she said. “That’s where they’re putting the overflow and I know what it looks like there.”

For the last few days, buses have been arriving at the shelter to take people, their belongings packed into clear garbage bags, to other smaller shelters or to the Centennial Campground on the far east side of town, which was converted last week into Anchorage’s first sanctioned campground for people experiencing homelessness.

At its peak, Sullivan Arena housed more than 500 people. On Wednesday afternoon, with only hours to go before it closed, more than 100 people were still there — napping on cots, walking the hallways, charging cellphones, tending to their belongings, eating meals delivered by Bean’s Cafe.

By midnight Thursday, all this would be gone, said Joe Cizek, one of the owners of 99 Plus One, the contractor running the shelter. He was prepared to stay up all night seeing to that, he said.

For the past month, signs have been posted on the concrete walls advising people their time at the Sullivan Arena is coming to a close.

Sullivan Arena homeless shelter

“This facility was part of a COVID-19 emergency response to help you stay safe during the pandemic,” the flyers say. “Federal funding is ending and this facility must close. No deadline extensions are expected.”

Where would the final residents be spending the night Thursday? For many, that wasn’t clear.

Buses arrived through the day to take people to shelters or the campground. But places like the Aviator Hotel or the GuestHouse, unless a person was already signed up to live there, wouldn’t be an immediate option, said Tyler Sachtleben, a spokesman for the Anchorage Health Department.

“The final guests do tend to be the most challenging to place,” he said.

Sachtleben estimated about a quarter of the remaining residents would go straight to the streets.

“We’ve found about 25% … were not interested in any services whatsoever, and were just going to go off and do what they choose to do,” he said.

Sullivan Arena

Since the beginning of the pandemic, he said, hundreds of new housing units have opened in Anchorage. But he acknowledged that the final residents of the shelter face a difficult immediate future.

“I would say the progress is historic, though obviously this is quite a challenge.”

[Few supplies, many questions and multiple bear encounters at Anchorage campground now open to homeless residents]

Soon, as early as next week, contractors will arrive to fix broken plumbing, broken glass and other damage to Sullivan Arena, Sachtleben said.

Aaron Wise perched on a concrete bench outside as buses waited to take new groups of people to already full shelters or the campground. He said he wanted to go home to Tuluksak, in Western Alaska. But if he couldn’t do that, he was hoping to hang around long enough to secure a tent he heard might be distributed.

Sullivan Arena

He pulled a voucher from his pocket. Maybe he’d go to the campground.

‘Many moving parts and much work to be done’

Meanwhile Wednesday, members of the Anchorage Assembly clashed with officials from the Bronson administration at a special midday meeting of the city’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness. With Sullivan Arena’s impending closure, major policy and infrastructure issues remain unresolved about where a large number of homeless people will go, what they’ll eat and who is in charge of a complex situation that is changing by the day.

anchorage assembly, homelessness

“There are many moving parts and much work to be done in the next 24 hours,” said committee chair Felix Rivera.

The meeting repeatedly grew tense as several Assembly members said they were not getting basic information or communication from the mayor’s administration.

“What I’ve heard at this meeting is there is no coordinated strategy and no subject matter expert,” said Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance. “That is very concerning to me.”

anchorage assembly, homelessness

Mayor Dave Bronson was not at the meeting. Municipal Manager Amy Demboski and Chief of Staff Alexis Johnson shared updated information about the city’s plans for shuttering Sullivan Arena, prospects for absorbing people who are displaced into existing shelter spaces, and details on shifting people toward the Centennial Campground as a temporary solution.

“We’re in the process right now of demobilizing one of the biggest congregate care facilities in the country,” Demboski said. “We’re doing the very best we can … we’re trying to make sure that we’re keeping the city safe and we’re being respectful.”

Repeatedly, the committee heard that there is no spare room in the existing shelter system once Sullivan Arena shuts down.

“There is currently no capacity in our homeless prevention and response system,” said Terria Ware with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “If you are seeking shelter as a family tonight, there is currently nowhere to go.”

anchorage assembly, homelessness

Though the availability of housing units and shelter beds fluctuates slightly from day to day, Ware said the problem also stems from constraints on staffing and funding. A facility might have a few spare rooms, but not the workforce or funding to responsibly take in more clients.

“You will see a higher number tomorrow being unsheltered than we originally predicted,” Ware said. “And this does not account for inflow.”

[As Sullivan Arena shelter closure nears, Anchorage’s new sanctioned campground fills — and draws backlash]

A change ahead in federal aid

Up to this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, the city ran Sullivan Arena as an emergency shelter, and was assured that 100% of the roughly $1.1 million-a-month in costs would be repaid by the federal government through disaster-related assistance. Though reimbursements have begun coming in, Johnson told the Assembly that Anchorage is still expecting $80 million to $84 million to be paid back. Bronson campaigned on returning the arena to its intended use, but one impetus for shutting down the shelter now is that after July 1, the disaster funding formula through the Federal Emergency Management Agency will drop down to 90%, and local or state officials would become responsible for the remaining 10% of costs.

Major progress has been made toward getting hundreds of people into housing over the last two years, but a significant population remains unhoused.

Sullivan Arena

“We have picked, I will say, all the low-hanging fruit. All the easily housed people are housed,” said Cizek, telling the Assembly that many of those who remain at the Sullivan are dealing with mental, physical and behavioral health issues.

Members of the administration offered different explanations.

“It’s very clear from our impromptu case management that there’s not a lack of beds, there’s a lack of proactive case management,” Demboski said.

“Some people just do not want to be sheltered anywhere but the Sullivan Arena,” Johnson said. “We have offered the best resources that we can … at the end of the day, there’s no legal case for us to move them someplace that they don’t want to be.”

A political issue

Throughout the meeting, Assembly members were frustrated with responses from the administration, and several exchanges grew testy. The suitability of the Centennial Campground as an improvised homeless encampment was scrutinized. Communication from the mayor’s office to the Assembly, social service providers and community groups was criticized. The credibility of claims was questioned. Blame was slung.

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” said Assembly vice chair Christopher Constant. “And in many ways, it’s a crisis of this administration’s making.”

One major outstanding issue in the weeks ahead will be how the city handles abatement of homeless camps in public areas such as parks, trails and the city’s greenbelt. Under federal court rulings, the municipality cannot order campers to leave an area if there are no alternative shelter beds for them to stay, which will be the case across Anchorage for the foreseeable future until new facilities open up.

That’s a particular concern this year as exceptionally dry conditions have kept the city at a heightened risk of wildfire danger. According to Demboski, in just a three-month period starting in April, the Anchorage Fire Department reported that 219 fires it responded to were in or around homeless encampments. But once Sullivan Arena closes, Demboski told the Assembly, no abatement is anticipated beyond situations that constitute exceptional hazards to public safety.

“I am very concerned. I have neighbors now shouting at me that we need to abate all the camps popping up in the neighborhood,” Constant said.

Bronson’s successful mayoral campaign grew from anger among a large swath of residents at the previous administration and the Assembly’s approach to homelessness, which, among other measures, included a plan to use federal pandemic funds to purchase properties to house people. Since Bronson took office a year ago, the administration’s relationship with the Assembly on the issue has been so acrimonious that a negotiated facilitation arrangement was stood up to work on the topic. That agreement broke apart earlier this month.

Wednesday’s meeting offered no assurances of smooth relations going forward, with Assembly members criticizing the lack of coherent policy or leadership from City Hall, and the administration accusing them in turn of playing politics.

“This is an olive branch,” Demboski said of her attendance before the committee Wednesday. “You can keep attacking all you want, we’re gonna get the job done.”

“I’m going to continue to be the drumbeat to say that homelessness should not be politicized,” Johnson said in a closing statement. “It’s important we not look at this through a politicized lens.”

anchorage assembly, homelessness

That struck East Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar as disingenuous, given the campaign waged by Bronson and his supporters to halt implementation of a comprehensive homeless plan and undermine elected officials through attack ads, hostile public meetings and recall efforts.

“I can’t help but point out the incredible hypocrisy of people saying this shouldn’t be a ‘political issue,’” Dunbar said. “I remember very clearly the attacks on me, on the Assembly, on the prior administration on homelessness.”

Upon taking office, Dunbar said, Bronson scrapped a number of plans that had long been in the works, only for much of that work to be undertaken all over again during the last year.

“This is an emergency of their creation. A humanitarian crisis of their creation,” Dunbar said.

Johnson, in response, cited something another Assembly member had said at a separate meeting.

“That was then, this is now. We need to move forward as a joint body,” Johnson said.

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Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, politics, drugs, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the paper he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.

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