Sulamai Seve has been homeless and living in a room at the Aviator Hotel in downtown Anchorage for about a year.
On a recent sunny September afternoon, she sat on a concrete curb beneath the hotel’s portico. Seve held the ashy remains of a spent cigarette in her right hand, her left tucked into the pocket of her black hoodie.
“I like it here. They are treating me pretty good,” she said.
The privately owned hotel has been home to a total of more than 500 people experiencing homelessness over the last two years. It is the city’s last remaining COVID-19 era emergency homeless shelter.
Since she began staying in the Aviator, Seve has secured two part-time jobs. One is at a nearby hotel and another at a linen-laundering business, she said.
A local nonprofit has set up shop on-site and is working to help secure permanent and transitional housing for many of the hotel’s homeless residents. Seve said it will soon help her get into an apartment — next month, she hopes.
“They took me under their wing, so at least I can get back on my feet,” she said.
About 220 homeless residents are currently living in the Aviator’s hotel rooms. It has become a critical element of the city’s homelessness response.
But its lifespan as an emergency shelter has an approaching expiration date.
Next spring, the sprawling, L-shaped building on the corner of West Fourth Avenue and C Street will be returned to its original purpose. Renovations to transform the property into a boutique hotel are already underway.
Some areas of the hotel can remain open for emergency shelter through the winter while other areas are renovated. The city and the hotel’s owners are planning to incrementally phase out its use as a shelter, on a timeline that is still being determined.
Meanwhile, an estimated 350 or more people are living without shelter in Anchorage. With almost no available shelter beds around the city, the slow-rolling withdrawal of the Aviator could have resounding impacts on a homelessness response system that already has been pushed to the brink.
‘Amazing how people will lift their own selves up’
The city for decades relied on Catholic Social Services and its Brother Francis Shelter downtown to provide low-barrier, walk-in shelter for Anchorage’s homeless. It was largely overcrowded, and the shelter struggled to meet a growing demand.
Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a sudden drop in capacity of the already-strained shelter system, and the city began playing an active role in year-round homeless sheltering for the first time.
In addition to setting up a mass congregate shelter inside Sullivan Arena, it put up hundreds of individual people in rooms at the Aviator and in other hotels around Anchorage.
In the beginning, it was “very rough and tumble,” said Emma Fisher, assistant general manager. The hotel began sheltering 40 people in October of 2020, and the number rapidly climbed, swelling to nearly 250 at its peak a year later, she said.
For the first few months, the city had not yet contracted on-site shelter management for the Aviator. It was operated mostly by the hotel’s security staff, housekeeping and management. Some case managers and social service workers would come in, and staff from Sullivan Arena would “come in and pop their heads in,” Fisher said. But the operation has coalesced. Now, for-profit company 99 Plus 1 provides on-site shelter management. Henning Inc., a homeless service nonprofit, is on-site.
During this time period, Aviator resident John Glasgow was a close witness to the major shift in Anchorage’s homelessness response.
Just before becoming homeless himself, Glasgow worked at the Brother Francis Shelter in 2019 for almost a year, he said. But he lost that job, and soon after, he also lost his apartment, he said. Glasgow began living out of vehicles and couch surfing in January of 2020, he said.
Eventually, Glasgow landed at the Aviator, where he has been living since early January of this year.
There, Glasgow said he has seen “complete changes” in people he described as “chronically homeless” — people he recognized from his time working at the shelter.
“It was just a big, huge change, and even now, so many people you see walking around here cleanshaven, didn’t look like that at Brother Francis. But it was because of the conditions,” he said.
In Brother Francis, they slept “mat to mat to mat,” often dealing with bedbugs in an environment that sometimes felt unsafe and was a “madhouse” at times, he said.
“I’m talking about the psychology of being there,” Glasgow said. “At night you’re sleeping on a pissy mat. You have nothing to look forward to. If you do have a job, because of the craziness that goes on there, you really can’t get any rest at night to be able to get up and go to your job.”
Residents at the Aviator have private rooms with a bed, bathroom, television, microwave and fridge, like any hotel guest would.
“You get somebody their own space, a warm bed to sleep in, some food and a little human dignity — it’s amazing how people will lift their own selves up,” he said.
At least 80 individuals have moved from the Aviator into permanent housing, and another 150 or more who spent some time at the Aviator, including families, have been connected to options for permanent housing, according to Rachel Barinbaum, spokeswoman for the hotel’s managing partners.
“They’re getting people vouchers. And they haven’t come back,” Glasgow said.
Glasgow is now getting a Housing Choice Voucher through the VA and is moving into an apartment in West Anchorage, he said.
Morphing to fill critical needs
Soft jazz plays in the Aviator’s Third Avenue lobby entrance. It looks and feels like a usual hotel lobby – a woman sits behind the front desk, and in one corner, a shelf is filled with stacks of colorful brochures advertising visitor activities like Denali zip lines, northern lights tours and dog sledding.
The clear difference is the security guard, who checks returning residents’ bags for items like weapons, drugs and alcohol. Residents don’t have to be sober to stay there, but they can’t use substances on the premises.
The Aviator has been a stopgap for Anchorage — it’s not perfect — but it has successfully filled critical needs, said Rob Seay, coordinator of non-congregate shelter services with the health department.
Seay has been working in the Aviator shelter since its beginnings, first as a peer support specialist and now overseeing the operation for the city.
“We’ve been making it up as we go,” he said. It has morphed as needs have shifted, and who is prioritized for rooms there has frequently changed. This summer, the city has only been moving people out of Centennial Campground and into the Aviator, prioritizing the most vulnerable, Seay said.
The Bronson administration directed and bused homeless individuals to stay in the East Anchorage campground as it closed the Sullivan Arena mass shelter at the end of June.
That’s where Leo Fisher, 78, stayed for about two weeks before moving into the Aviator in August. The Marine Corps veteran said he has been working in Alaska for 52 years. But this summer, he found himself with nowhere to go after his living situation at a friend’s house turned sour.
Anchorage has no walk-in, low-barrier shelter for the first time in decades. Living in the sodden, open-air encampment at Centennial is, essentially, the only option left for anyone who becomes homeless in Anchorage right now.
So he decided to camp at Centennial, “which is a beautiful thing,” he said. “Except it’s wet. I’ve camped out a lot in Alaska working helicopters, floatplanes, ski planes, out on the ice for three months. But I’m not used to weather anymore. I’m too old for that stuff.”
His tent was good and didn’t leak, but there was no way to stay warm, he said. He caught COVID-19 in the campground: “It’s impossible not to get COVID in Centennial Park,” he said.
A city employee there helped him get a room at the Aviator, he said.
“And God bless her,” Fisher said.
Fisher will have the option of several different housing vouchers through the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., Seay said.
But for many residents, where they will go once they must leave the Aviator is still up in the air.
Mayor Dave Bronson announced plans to continue shelter operations in the Aviator at least through December, with extension possible through April, as a part of his larger proposal for the city’s emergency cold weather sheltering plans. City funding for the operation currently runs just through September.
But residents can remain in one wing of the hotel where renovations won’t begin for more than a year. A transitional housing program is opening there, operated by Henning Inc. About 80 people will lease hotel rooms in the C-wing for a year, with rent subsidized through housing vouchers and emergency rental assistance funds. The goal of the program is to ultimately move them into permanent housing, said Shawn Hays, the nonprofit’s founder and executive director.
That leaves about 140 residents, who will eventually need other shelter or housing as available rooms are incrementally reduced. Because 80 residents are moving into the transitional housing program, no one at the Aviator should lose shelter in September and October, said the health department’s homelessness program manager, Andrea Nester, during a recent Emergency Shelter Task Force meeting.
But after October, alternate shelter or housing must be found for the Aviator’s homeless residents in the following months — or else officials risk turning the residents out onto the streets. In February, the number of rooms available for shelter would drop to just 47, though the timeline and numbers could shift, Nester said.
“We are triaging demobilization plans for every individual. But quite frankly, it’s a heavy lift,” Seay said. “... There’s not enough occupancy anywhere. There aren’t any units available.”
George Henry, 47, sat on his walker in a conference room at the Aviator Hotel in late August. Whether he can keep his room at the Aviator through winter — “I have no idea,” Henry said.
Henry is a little bit concerned about that, but “right now my health is No. 1,” he said.
Henry has two types of arthritis and is beginning chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer, he said.
He’s had some help looking for housing options from Catholic Social Services and is in the process of applying for disability, but it’s a long process, he said.
He’s nervous about the chemo treatments, he said. He’ll take the city bus to the hospital for his appointments and hopes to get taxi vouchers for the rides home to his hotel room.
“I was thinking about waiting till we found a place but I got to start it now. I put it off long enough,” Henry said.
With more than 350 people already unsheltered and those at the Aviator who eventually must leave, emergency cold weather shelter or housing is needed for up to about 500 people this winter.
The Bronson administration recently announced an outline of its plan for emergency cold weather shelter this winter, and a separate task force led by the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness has also been developing emergency shelter plans at the request of the Assembly.
Bronson officials have said they plan to move remaining Aviator residents in January to a shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage that the city is currently constructing.
But Assembly leaders and other members have raised doubts about whether the city can actually get the project done in that time, and they are eyeing other options, including opening one or more non-congregate emergency shelters in different Anchorage hotels.
Meanwhile, the final stand-down of the Aviator shelter is beginning. Meal service provided by Bean’s Cafe will end after September, Nester said. Residents there have food stamps and a dry food pantry will be on-site, she said.
Because it is already on-site, Henning will take over case management from 99 Plus 1 for all the residents in October, she said. Catholic Social Services’ intensive case management will continue there through December, she said.
For Seay, Hays and others working there, it will be a long push to the Aviator shelter’s finish — whenever it does close — to permanently house as many residents as possible.
“I’m still worried. I’m absolutely worried about homelessness in general, but the people here especially, because there’s so many people that are close,” Seay said. “There’s so many people that are just right there. So many people that have connected with case management, but there’s still a process.”
And that process takes time. Paperwork must be filed. Apartments must be found.
Henning is “master leasing” apartments elsewhere in Anchorage in order to permanently house clients at the Aviator — clients like Sulamai Seve. The organization takes on the legal liability for apartment rentals to quell the worries of landlords who would otherwise be wary of renting to someone who has been homeless.
Hays said she is putting together a team of four housing specialists to find permanent options for residents. Henning has moved four families into homes in the last few weeks and will soon move another, she said. And on Sept. 15, an on-site medical clinic will open, in a partnership with Mountain View Health Services. It will be able to provide medication management, key to helping some people become stable, and will be open to anyone experiencing homelessness, Hays said.
“We have an opportunity. They’ve been here for a while. We know what the demographic is. And we have built relationships,” Seay said. “So we have all the pieces together. We’ve just got to solidify it.”