The city shut down Anchorage’s large-scale homeless shelter in the Sullivan Arena on Thursday. The shelter had been an emergency measure prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic that was never expected to last more than two years.
The people remaining at the arena this week have filtered out across the city. A few found space at smaller shelters in town. Some walked off for the city’s greenbelts and streets.
But many were shuttled to a campground the city has hastily repurposed as a sanctioned space for them and others who are homeless.
As municipal officials and nonprofits scramble to provide services and safety at the campground, homeless service providers and advocates are asking how the basic needs will be provided — and who will do it.
Now, no one is staying inside the cavernous Sullivan Arena, which at times has housed more than 500 people. In recent weeks that number has dwindled as the city gave notice it would be standing down the facility by July 1, and guests left the facility.
“The approximately 60 remaining clients were transferred to locations of their choosing throughout Anchorage,” the Anchorage Health Department said in a Thursday statement.
By Thursday afternoon, all 84 spots at Centennial Campground in East Anchorage were filled with tents and a few RVs. According to Mike Braniff, Mayor Dave Bronson’s newly appointed Parks and Recreation director, 152 people were camping there. Of those, 41 people had been shuttled there by the city from Sullivan Arena. Others made their way to the site on their own.
“People are still trickling in,” Braniff said as he walked behind a department truck slowly winding through the camp loop. Its bed was loaded with 60 bright yellow bear canisters the department just purchased from REI for $80 apiece. In the few days since the city repurposed the campsite, black bears from the nearby Chugach foothills have been a problem, entering the grounds and people’s tents searching for food.
The shelter at Sullivan Arena had been operated by contractor 99 Plus One since September. At Centennial, Parks and Recreation workers are tasked with running the campground and figuring out how to keep it operating safely. In the meantime, social service agencies are trying to help meet the needs of campers, several of whom have few supplies, little camping experience and — for some — mental and physical health challenges and substance abuse issues.
So far, the suddenly transformed campground was running smoothly, within its capacity’s “normal operating range,” its restrooms and showers not overtaxed, Braniff said.
“Really, the one challenge we’re solving is the bears, which have always been here anyway,” Braniff said. “I mean, it’s clean, it’s orderly.”
Just south of the campground’s entrance, clusters of small green tents hugged the ground, dotting a grassy area. The area is not usually used as a campsite. Now, a group of women who had been staying in the Sullivan shelter will sleep there, Braniff said.
Some women leaving the shelter didn’t want to go to the campground because they would be camping near men, so Alexis Johnson, Bronson’s chief of staff, suggested forming the women-only area.
The city isn’t providing food or supplies to campers, other than the bear cans. Those arriving from Sullivan were given cots and small tents by the Salvation Army.
Providers, volunteers and other groups are scrambling to pull together last-minute efforts to help the campers.
Bean’s Cafe food trucks have been delivering cold meals to campers around midday ever since the city began giving people vouchers to stay at the campground, said Lisa Sauder, CEO of the nonprofit.
The organization has some funds to continue serving food for now, but in order for the daily deliveries to continue for much longer, she said the organization will need community support.
The Houseless Resources Advocacy Council had set up a white canopy in a site near the center of the campground. The group’s members have all experienced homelessness or are homeless. They plan to be on site every day.
“Having a legal campground is something that our organization has advocated for,” said Holly Cannon, a member of the council. “Granted, we would have liked notice for planning purposes and coordination of services and things like that. But it’s definitely a need.”
Some people who are camping there came from illegal campsites or had been living out of vehicles. Many are happy to have a place with water, bathrooms and showers.
But those who arrived from Sullivan Arena had a roof over their heads earlier this week. Now, they have no choice but to live outside, most with only the bare minimum for camping gear.
Council member Natasha Gamache, who is homeless and living out of her car, asked campers who came over what they needed at the site, putting together a list and posting it to Facebook.
“Med kits, sharps containers, Narcan kits, toiletries,” she said, reading the list out loud.
On Thursday the council passed out extra meals left over from an earlier delivery by United Way of Anchorage. Campers visited to chat and use the few cans of bug spray set out on a folding table.
A church group of about a dozen teenagers and a few adults in red T-shirts walked the campground, passing out bottles of water and a few sack lunches.
United Way brought a hot meal of chicken, rice, and other food to the campers.
It was a one-time donation — the very last day to spend leftover funds from a COVID-19 era hunger relief program, said Zachary Zears, a contractor working with United Way.
“The biggest issue is everybody starts out with a fire in their belly the first two, three, four days. The real question is who’s going to be here next week, and the next, and next,” said Cathleen McLaughlin, CEO of Restorative and Reentry Services.
Zears and McLaughlin have both held director positions overseeing operations at the Sullivan Arena shelter, at separate times during its two-year lifespan.
The Bronson administration’s fast-tracked efforts to shift homeless people from the Sullivan Arena to a park more than 7 miles away is drawing sharp criticism. At a Wednesday meeting, Anchorage Assembly members questioned the administration about the speed with which the policy change is happening, a lack of clear information or communication and the implications for public safety.
On Thursday, a coalition group that works closely on homeless issues faulted the Bronson administration’s handling of the situation.
“There are reported concerns regarding food storage, bear encounters, security, sanitation, and food, all of which were avoidable,” said a written statement from the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “Based on comments from the Mayor’s office there is not a plan for staffing the property, explicitly stating this is not a homelessness response, yet that is exactly what is needed.”
ACEH noted that while nonprofits and community groups have stepped forward to offer basic supplies like tents, food, and water, those measures are unlikely to be sustainable indefinitely to such a large population.
“The chaos of this moment is a result of the lack of forward-thinking and is harmful to people experiencing homelessness, the service providers that support them, and all of Anchorage,” the coalition said.
With the Sullivan Arena now closed, there’s also uncertainty about the city’s recourse for clearing encampments on public land, a process known as abatement. For years, elected officials and service providers have struggled with how to move people out of parks and trail areas while complying with a federal court decision requiring that there be indoor shelter space available for them to go to as an alternative. At Wednesday’s meeting, officials were told the city has no capacity in its shelter network to absorb the number of people still without housing as the Sullivan closes.
“Abatements will occur only if there is available space for shelter,” said Bronson spokesman Corey Allen Young.
According to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, community members can donate supplies such as water bottles, sunscreen, bug spray and sun-protective hats from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday at 3427 E. Tudor Road, Suite A.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Cathleen McLaughlin’s organization. McLaughlin is the CEO of Restorative and Reentry Services, which is not a part of United Way. It is a separate organization.