Officials in Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration say the city needs to open Sullivan Arena to shelter 300 homeless residents, rather than the 150 allowed in city code and in an emergency shelter plan approved by the Anchorage Assembly this week. Administration officials are arguing the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel needs repairs before it can be used to house unsheltered people, and that using the hotel also presents legal challenges.
Assembly members are suggesting a different solution: They instead want to lease 50 rooms in the Spenard-area Alex Hotel to shelter 100 people and increase capacity at the Sullivan to just 200, according to a statement Friday from Assembly members Felix Rivera and Chris Constant.
A special Assembly meeting will be scheduled “as quickly as possible” to discuss options other than doubling the size of the planned shelter, including using the Alex Hotel rooms for non-congregate shelter, Rivera and Constant said in the statement. A day and time for the meeting had not been finalized as of 6 p.m. Friday.
The Assembly’s initial plan for emergency winter shelter included using the Sullivan to shelter 150 people and leasing 85 rooms in the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown, which would house about 120 people or more.
Meanwhile, about 350 homeless residents are living unsheltered in Anchorage, including about 200 in Centennial Park Campground. The city has not yet stood up emergency winter shelter for them. The city has a legal obligation to stand up enough cold weather shelter for its homeless residents once temperatures drop to 45 degrees — a deadline that passed days ago.
Late Thursday, the mayor announced the city would transport people living at Centennial to Sullivan Arena on Saturday — back to the same building that was used as the city’s COVID-19 era mass homeless shelter, until the Bronson administration shuttered it in June and moved homeless residents to the Northeast Anchorage park.
Bronson so far has not said whether or not he will use the Golden Lion, but on Friday his administration released a memo from an attorney for the city concluding that using the former hotel is not legal under a city ordinance, and that using it for transitional housing would require completing a planning approval process and a parking variance process, which could take months.
It is largely up to the mayor to implement the plan and to use the two municipal-owned facilities.
The mayor’s office on Thursday sent the Assembly a copy of a letter from the city’s homeless coordinator, which outlined reasons for a delay in opening the Golden Lion and requested that the Sullivan shelter be increased to 300 people.
In the letter, homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson listed several issues that would delay using the former Midtown hotel for more than a week, at the least. Johnson said she needs “immediate guidance from the administration on a path forward to ensure stability and continuity for our city’s most vulnerable population.”
Johnson included a separate letter written by Henning Inc., the nonprofit that the city selected to run both operations. Its executive director, Shawn Hays, requested the delay in opening the Golden Lion because the building needs maintenance and repairs. Hays asked for a surge capacity of 300 people in Sullivan Arena.
About 40 toilets need repairs, doors need to be rekeyed and the city must ensure all fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are working before the Golden Lion building can pass the required fire inspection, Johnson said.
The administration should work with the Assembly to increase capacity at Sullivan Arena in the meantime, Johnson said.
City code governing homeless sheltering and the Assembly’s legislation for winter shelter currently both limit the size of any shelter in Sullivan Arena to 150.
“This creates barriers for people wishing to access emergency cold weather shelter. If the capacity cannot be increased, my concern is we will not have adequate low-barrier shelter. This decision could result in loss of life when temperatures drop below freezing,” Johnson said.
Assembly members say there are issues with increasing capacity at the Sullivan.
An increase to 300 would “recreate the previous issues that existed” during the building’s two-year lifespan as a mass shelter, according to Rivera, who is also chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness, and Assembly Vice Chair Constant.
Residents near Sullivan Arena have reported frequent break-ins and theft, drug use and graffiti. They also say they’ve witnessed or have been victims of violence over the two years that the city used the arena for a mass shelter. Many have implored the city to come up with plans to mitigate impacts to neighborhoods, to provide better security and to keep the shelter much smaller if the city must use Sullivan Arena for homeless sheltering again.
“It is important that we do everything in our power to avoid creating another mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena. The alternatives that will be brought forward allow us to avoid this mistake,” Rivera said in the statement.
Rivera in an interview expressed frustration with the administration’s stance on the Golden Lion and the memo from city attorneys, which did not address possible solutions.
“A willing administration would be able to quickly and efficiently get around those roadblocks,” he said.
Still, “I think the pushback is mainly superficial,” he said. “I think I can get the mayor to a ‘yes,’ as long as he’s willing to work with the Assembly.”
Rivera said it was the administration’s responsibility to come up with a viable plan, and it did not do that.
“Now, that the Assembly has come up with a plan, the administration is doing its best to poke holes in it,” Rivera said. “There’s nothing wrong with doing due diligence. But come up with solutions.”
Bronson in a statement Friday said he looks forward “to having further discussions with the Assembly.”
The Bronson administration has also pushed the closure of Centennial Park Campground by one day, to Saturday at 5 p.m. Bronson had previously announced he would close Centennial on Friday, and before Thursday’s announcement, many homeless residents were left uncertain and worried about where they would go.
To immediately act, Bronson could declare an emergency, which would allow the city to legally shelter more than 150 people in Sullivan Arena for 48 hours, according to city code. It’s not yet clear whether the mayor will take such action, and the Assembly would have to vote to extend the emergency beyond two days.
Preparations were underway Friday afternoon for people to stay at the Sullivan Arena starting this weekend. Cots were stacked against the walls under the bleachers as work crews readied the building to once again shelter homeless residents.
A number of animal crates sat in the back of a flatbed truck on the floor of the arena. The city is allowing campers to bring dogs with them, after hearing prohibitions against pets was a barrier that kept people from moving into winter shelter.
The city plans to have workers from the Parks and Recreation and Anchorage Health departments at Centennial early Saturday morning to begin offering people rides to Sullivan. They’ll be able to take two plastic totes’ worth of items with them.
”I don’t want to run out of daylight,” Johnson said. “So the earlier the better, if we can get people mobilized. We know the campground is closing at 5 p.m. tomorrow to the public.”
At that time, the gate will be closed and bathrooms locked, officials have said.
Johnson estimates the city will be able to move about 100 people from Centennial to Sullivan by closing time on Saturday.
So far, 60 people at Centennial have signed up for a ride to Sullivan, Johnson said. The city will begin moving those residents first, and she said another 40 are likely to take the ride to the arena.
Plans vary for the 100 or so others who’ve been living in the campground. Johnson said she expects some people will stay.
“I’m not going to Sullivan Arena — that’s about all I know,” said Kelton Counts, who was busy installing a radiator into his van late Friday afternoon, in preparation for Saturday’s move. His dog, Dallas, played with a chewed-up tennis ball near his feet while Counts worked.
He began staying in the campground after losing his rental home about three months ago, he said. After witnessing chaos and some bad behavior in Centennial, Counts doesn’t want to live in the Sullivan, he said. It will be too rough, he said. He’d rather live in the van, despite the cold, he said.
A few friends have offered Counts, his girlfriend and dog a place to stay.
“If not, it could be hopping around in the van,” he said. “We did it one winter and it was parking lot to parking lot. There’s really no safe place to go when you’re living like this.” Someone always kicked them out or called police, he said.
Others at Centennial were working on their vehicles or clearing up camps, preparing to leave. Several spots were already empty, devoid of the clustered tents, tarps, and clothing lines that once filled them.
Steven Reeves doesn’t plan to go to Sullivan either. He’s been camping in Anchorage on and off for about four years, he said. Reeves and others will find spots to camp elsewhere in wooded areas around the city, he said.
It’s not clear when the city will clear the camps of homeless residents who remain in Centennial Campground after Saturday. A federal court ruling holds that homeless camps cannot be cleared, a process called abatement, unless alternate shelter is available.
For the time being, the administration’s focus is on standing up the Sullivan, Johnson said. There is no concrete guidance on what will happen to people who opt to stay at the Centennial campground once it is wound down, or campers living in tents and compounds on public land all over the city’s parks and greenbelts.
”Right now my focus is not abating,” Johnson said. “My focus is just to get as many people as I can into shelter, and then we’ll go from there.”
Daily News reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed.