[Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the original version that was published Thursday morning to reflect new developments. Late Thursday, the mayor’s office said the city will begin moving homeless residents in Centennial Campground to Sullivan Arena on Saturday morning.]
Ivan Cofey was cleaning up camp in East Anchorage’s Centennial Park Campground early on Wednesday afternoon. Bundled in a coat, beanie and gloves, he tossed some papers into a small fire. His girlfriend squatted next to it, trying to keep warm in the 45-degree weather.
The couple arrived at the city’s sanctioned campground for homeless residents from the city’s former Sullivan Arena mass shelter on a small People Mover bus at the end of June. That’s when Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration shut down the COVID-era shelter, which the city had operated for more than two years, and transported homeless residents to the far-flung campground in the city’s northeast corner. Since then, about 200 people have been living there, unsheltered, sleeping in tents, under tarps and in vehicles.
Bronson announced earlier this month that he would close Centennial Park Campground on Sept. 30 – Friday. The city will lock the gate and the bathrooms, shut off electricity and shut off the water. The city will begin moving homeless residents from the park and back to Sullivan Arena early Saturday morning.
And after three months of contending with the chilly weather, frequent rain, mud and black bears raiding campsites, Cofey and 150 or so others are going back.
But on Wednesday, Cofey wasn’t sure where to go. He didn’t know what would happen. Nobody at Centennial did, he said.
“These people here, they play with your lives. It’s f----- up — I keep it real — it’s f----- up,” Cofey said.
“They closed down the Sullivan Arena, put us out here. Now they closing this down,” Cofey said. “We ain’t got nowhere to stay, we ain’t got nowhere to eat.”
The city hasn’t yet stood up emergency winter shelter for homeless residents, a legal requirement once temperatures drop to 45 degrees. On a few recent nights, it has been colder. About 350 people, including those at Centennial, are living unsheltered in the city, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates.
On Monday, the Anchorage Assembly voted to fund enough emergency winter shelter through December to meet the estimated demand. The $2.4 million package and approved contracts would fund a shelter at Sullivan Arena for 150 people and 85 rooms of leased housing at the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel, and fund local private shelters to open up more beds, including Bean’s Cafe, which plans to open a 40-person shelter for men.
By Wednesday, the mayor hadn’t committed to follow through with it, despite Centennial’s impending closure. A spokesman said the administration was “continuing to conduct due diligence and evaluation” of the Assembly’s plan.
Late Thursday, the mayor’s office said it would be busing people from Centennial to Sullivan on Saturday.
“As per the Anchorage Assembly’s plan, preparations are happening to move people from Centennial Campground to the Sullivan Arena on Saturday, October 1st,” Corey Allen Young, spokesman for the mayor, said by email. “In terms of the Golden Lion, the Municipal Attorney’s Office is still reviewing this component of the Assembly’s plan.”
Bronson has through Tuesday to issue a veto of any part of the package, and it’s largely up to him whether the city will follow through and use the former Midtown hotel.
Hans Rodvik, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the campground usually closes a few weeks earlier than Sept. 30, on Labor Day.
“It is being closed to ensure staff have time to winterize the facility and clean it up prior to winter. Water and electricity will be turned off as is normal. Campers at the campground have been given ample notice that the facility was closing on the 30th. Parks and Rec staff will be there to clean up the facility and will work with AHD (Anchorage Health Department) staff to transport those who seek shelter elsewhere. All operations will cease at the campground on the 30th. Port-o-potties and trash service will remain onsite for now,” Rodvik said.
The city can’t legally clear homeless camps, a process it calls abatement, unless there is shelter available.
On Wednesday, no one with the city had told Cofey or others at Centennial where they should go after the shutdown. Homeless service providers weren’t exactly sure what to tell people either.
That notification process began Thursday. A group of Salvation Army staff wearing red safety vests walked the campground’s loop. They carried yellow legal pads, checking off the numbered campsites they’d stopped at and writing down names of campers who want to go to Sullivan. They told the campers that the city would bring them two totes to pack their belongings in, and pick them up on Saturday for the ride over.
Bean’s Cafe CEO Lisa Sauder is now rushing to get a Midtown building that the soup kitchen has been leasing prepped, furnished and ready to become a shelter facility. She’s been working with the health department to get all the right paperwork done, but the building still needs a fire safety inspection, she said. No contracts have been signed so far.
“We’re all anxious to find out what’s going to happen. Hopefully it will move forward,” she said on Wednesday. “There’s a lot of people operating in good faith right now, trying to make things happen.”
Sauder and employees from Tote Maritime passed out fleece-lined high visibility vests to campers at Centennial on Wednesday, to help keep them safe while walking on streets in the dark, especially as they begin to disperse from Centennial.
The city anticipates that some homeless residents will remain in Centennial.
Sauder said on Wednesday she had a lot of big concerns — such as how Bean’s will continue to bring hot meals to campers in the food truck once the gate is closed. Sauder said she would be at Centennial again on Friday “figuring out the lay of the land” and how to keep feeding people, at least until shelters are opened. In a donation-based effort with no city support, Bean’s began delivering three meals a day to campers there shortly after the city directed homeless residents to stay there.
She’s worried for the many Centennial campers who own pets, and who won’t be able to get into a shelter facility with an animal. She’s worried about how case managers, navigators and other homeless service agencies will be able to contact their clients once the electricity is turned off and they can’t charge their phones — and can’t call 911 for police or medical help.
The city “should at least extend power and water until shelters come online. People need potable water,” she said. “There’s all these unintended consequences that people don’t think about.”
There are more than a dozen vehicles still in the campground. Some are broken down, appearing stripped for parts, with no wheels or missing a hood, windows and bumper. Others are still running, slept-in and driven by the campers who own them.
The mayor’s office did not answer a question about whether it would begin impounding any remaining vehicles after Friday.
It all seemed like rumors to Christopher Vincent, who spoke while chopping firewood on Monday. He has been staying at Centennial to watch out for a female friend who is just “100 pounds soaking wet,” he said. He’ll stay there until she finds a place to go, he said.
“I heard they’re supposed to be putting people up in the Golden Lion. That’s a pretty smart idea,” he said. “Gets people off the streets, gives them a chance to get back on their feet. They should turn all those rooms into studio apartments, help people get jobs to be able to afford it. It’s just logical.”
The Assembly-approved contract for a shelter in Sullivan is for 150 people. That’s less than half of unsheltered people in Anchorage. Bronson has long opposed the city’s purchase of the Golden Lion, and he has given no word on whether he will agree to use it for housing unsheltered people.
Salvation Army staff are still on-site through Friday, said the organization’s divisional secretary, Capt. Kevin Pope. On Wednesday at Centennial, he stood at the opening of a green Conex filled with donated items like clothes, blankets, tents and sanitation kits.
Since The Salvation Army stepped in to coordinate community efforts, donations and services after the city did not provide any homeless services at Centennial, its staff have moved more than 100 people out of Centennial, Pope said. They’ve gone into shelters, transitional and permanent housing, and home to their families by plane.
Sauder said she still doesn’t know how she’ll get 40 people with belongings from Centennial to the Bean’s Cafe shelter once it opens, pending a signed contract. The nonprofit has one vehicle that could hold one or two people and their things, she said.
Another move means most people at Centennial will lose most of their stuff, Cofey said. City officials have said the Parks and Rec Department will store belongings from Centennial for up to 30 days. Winter is far longer.
“I just feel like they’re going to shut down the next place where they send everybody. They going to keep shuffling everybody around,” Cofey said Wednesday.
“It is what it is — material stuff — but shit, it’s going to take a while to get it all back,” he said. He gestured toward two large, new-looking tents in his site, warm blankets, sleeping bags and clothing visible through the half-zippered entrances.
On Thursday, Cofey was relieved to at least finally know he would have a warm and dry place to stay at Sullivan, and he was hopeful that he would soon receive a housing voucher he’d applied for.
Dave “Texas” Stanek and his elderly cat, Ms. Stinkers, arrived at Centennial last Friday from Fairbanks in an old blue truck with a camper on its bed.
Stanek said Salvation Army staff immediately started work connecting him to homeless services.
“I pulled in Friday. On Monday, I’d been served — plucked, inspected, certified,” he said.
He is a veteran, so he hopes to get a housing voucher soon. This Friday, he will leave Centennial and find someplace else to park for a few weeks until paperwork is filed and an apartment is found. Stanek hopes to find a spot with an electrical hookup so he and his cat can stay warm without using propane. He can at least stay in a Wal-Mart parking lot if all else fails, he said.
On Wednesday, Ivan Herrera sat in a covered area near Centennial’s playground eating a hot lunch of rice, pulled meat and slaw delivered by Bean’s Cafe. Herrera spoke with navigators from Bean’s who are canvassing the campground, trying to figure out the best placements for individuals. He hopes to get a room in the Golden Lion because it’s close to his old workplace, he said. Maybe he could get work there again, he said — Herrera wants to work, but couldn’t get there from Centennial Park.
Another man eating nearby also spoke up: “I don’t even know what I’m going to do. We’ve got to survive somehow.”
He’d stay in Sullivan again, he said.
“Beats the heck out of being outside in the cold and wet.”