Monique Crespo sat in a wheelchair outside Sullivan Arena on a hot and smoky morning, poking at a shrink-wrapped container of oatmeal.
“I’m angry,” she whispered, leaning close. “I’m angry about this situation.”
Crespo, a blunt and animated 49-year-old, was among the last dozen people to leave Sullivan Arena, which closed Thursday after nearly 2 1/2 years of use as a large-scale homeless shelter.
At its peak, the facility had housed more than 500 unsheltered people each night. But on Thursday, the city closed the mass shelter for good.
By then, most residents had moved on: People had walked into the woods with backpacks. Others had scooped up available spots in smaller shelters, though for some that meant sleeping in a tent under an awning outdoors. Many had boarded the shuttle buses taking people to Centennial Campground, where the city was giving out vouchers to camp for 14 days and social service agencies were distributing tents, cots and other camping supplies.
Crespo was one of a dozen or so holdouts, milling about on the sun-baked concrete outside the arena, with no definite plan. The scene was quietly chaotic: people taking off and putting on clothes, in various states of agitation and crisis. Every so often someone would start yelling. A man bicycled past holding a long garden rake, like a weapon.
“In case that’s not obvious, the last people here are the hardest ones to place,” Crespo said with raised eyebrows.
And yeah, that included her, she said with a sigh. The reasons were complicated: At the Aviator Hotel, she had write-ups. She wasn’t necessarily welcome at the Downtown Hope Shelter, her preferred destination.
“I have a track record of being banned at hotels, shelters, because of my anger outbursts,” Crespo said matter-of-factly.
She’d only been at Sullivan Arena because it “was the only place that would take me,” she said.
Living at the shelter was hard. “I did not thrive,” was how Crespo put it.
People left food around, creating a situation she described as “a shrew buffet.” A kind staff member had to guard the door of the port-a-potty for her because men kept trying to burst in, she said. She heard people having psychotic episodes through the night, which made it almost impossible to sleep. The best she could do was put in her earbud headphones and turn up something with piano and birdsong.
“I call it ‘going into the bubble,’ ” she said.
There was also the matter of her friend. Sitting next to Crespo was a companion, a woman she’d met in the shelter. The friend was shy about talking to reporters and terrified of the police and other authorities. She sometimes said inappropriate things, which Crespo corrected with a firm “that was not appropriate.” They felt safer together.
“I’m her whisperer,” Crespo explained. “I can interpret her. I understand her.”
Crespo wasn’t willing to go anywhere without her friend. Between them, they carried 10 garbage bags of bedding, clothes and other belongings, a few suitcases and Crespo’s pink case of nail supplies. Sometimes for money she painted people’s nails. In the shelter, people still wanted to feel good and it was a way to earn some cash.
By 11:30 a.m., the final shelter guest had left Sullivan Arena, though piles of belongings dotted the concrete arena floor. The items would be saved for another 72 hours, said someone from the Anchorage Health Department. Workers had arrived to begin the labor of boarding up broken glass, sweeping final drifts of trash and carrying out cots.
Outside, workers in Anchorage Health Department vests walked around with clipboards. Every so often, a shuttle bus pulled up and a few people got on, bound for the Centennial Campground.
Crespo was clear: She did not want to go to the campground. She has a heart condition and uses a wheelchair and a hand-me-down walker to get around. She used a CPAP machine at night. In six years of homelessness, she’d spent only a few nights outside.
“I don’t do camping,” she said.
A case manager she liked was inside, trying to make phone calls on her behalf in a Hail Mary effort to find a proper bed for Crespo. But that didn’t seem to be working. Crespo seemed resigned: Sullivan Arena was behind her, literally. The doors were locked to her now. She’d be somewhere by nightfall. She promised to do what she called a “tuck in” — text that she was safe, wherever she was, before going to sleep.
“It’s too late to turn back now,” she said.
Midafternoon, she texted from a shuttle bus: It looked like she’d be going to Centennial Campground after all. At least there was a women-only site to camp. And there were showers. She wasn’t sure on details, or how she’d plug in her CPAP machine or get around in her wheelchair. But her friend was alongside her. Also, there didn’t seem to be much choice in the matter.
But by late afternoon, Crespo was asleep in her tent exactly where she didn’t want to be: in the woods of Anchorage, camping. For now.