Keith Jackson and Jena Callahan woke up early and packed their belongings in the chilly Saturday morning air at Centennial Park Campground, where the couple and about 200 other homeless Anchorage residents have been living since summer.
Then, with the help of city Parks and Recreation staff, Jackson and Callahan boarded an AnchorRIDES bus and rode to Sullivan Arena, where the city is opening a 150-person homeless shelter. The couple stood on the steps to Sullivan’s entrance later Saturday morning, hugging and bantering together in the sunshine. Both were a bit relieved to be somewhere warm, clean and safer than Centennial — at a place with a roof, working showers and no mud.
At times, life in Centennial was harrowing for the couple.
“She got beat up with a stick. We saw bears face-to-face. I got bear-maced twice,” Jackson said.
The couple moved to Centennial when Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration opened it to sanctioned camping for homeless residents, busing them there as it shuttered the city’s COVID-19 mass homeless shelter in Sullivan Arena at the end of June. During its peak, the arena had sheltered more than 500 people a night.
Early Saturday morning, the city began moving homeless residents back.
Jackson and Callahan also stayed in Sullivan last year.
“We had no other choice” but to go back to Sullivan, Jackson said soon after they arrived. “Our options are limited.”
“We don’t want to be out there on the f------ street,” Callahan said, interjecting.
“Yeah. Out in the cold,” Jackson said.
An Anchorage city law requires the city to stand up enough emergency cold weather shelter for its homeless residents once temperatures drop to 45 degrees. About 350 homeless residents are living unsheltered in Anchorage, including those at Centennial.
Frustration over the Golden Lion
An emergency shelter plan approved by the Anchorage Assembly earlier this week called for the administration to set up a shelter in Sullivan for 150 people, and also to use the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown to lease 85 rooms to about 120 people.
For much of his administration, the mayor strongly opposed using the Golden Lion, and the issue was a cornerstone of his campaign for office. In recent weeks, it’s been less clear what his position is. But on Friday, officials in Bronson’s administration said the city needs to open Sullivan Arena to up to 300 homeless residents because the Golden Lion first needs some repairs, and they asserted that using the former hotel for housing or sheltering is hindered by several legal challenges.
Homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson said that the city has prepared Sullivan Arena with 200 cots, and that she expects the Assembly to agree to raise capacity to that number during a special meeting scheduled for Monday. Assembly members have proposed using 50 rooms in the Alex Hotel in Spenard to shelter 100 others.
Assembly leaders and several members say they are frustrated by Bronson’s continued resistance to using the Golden Lion for housing or substance abuse treatment, even in an emergency situation. It’s an option that’s far less costly than using Sullivan Arena and better for getting homeless residents back on their feet, they say.
Assembly members say the administration is responsible for planning and implementing an emergency winter shelter plan. When officials did not present a plan to members in August, the Assembly called up a community task force to find solutions. Members then said the administration’s plan, once they made it public last month, wasn’t viable or could not be implemented.
“Emergency shelter is the administration’s responsibility. Our responsibility is funding it when they come up with a plan, but so far, it’s been the Assembly totally running the show on emergency shelter because the administration has failed,” said Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the Committee on Homelessness and Housing.
“I’ll try to continue working with them to come up with solutions, but if the administration just shoots down everything that we come up with, I mean, I don’t know what else to do. My hands are tied. The administration needs to do the work so people don’t die,” Rivera said.
Around 9 a.m. Saturday, Johnson and Mike Braniff, director of Anchorage Parks and Recreation, walked from campsite to campsite in Centennial Park, speaking with homeless residents about the campground’s approaching 5 p.m. closure.
Some campers said they would not go to Sullivan and instead plan to stay at the campground, though water would soon be shut off and the bathrooms locked on Saturday. One woman refused a ride to Sullivan because her cat could not come. Others who want to stay with their partners at night also refused.
There is not currently an area for couples set up inside Sullivan, Johnson said. Dogs are allowed to stay in kennels, and the shelter has room for about 20, she said. But no cats at this point, Johnson said.
Several people began packing up their belongings and stripping their tents down after learning about the limited capacity at Sullivan Arena, wanting to ensure they got a spot.
Parks and Rec staff gave bags and totes to campers to pack their belongings. Anything they wanted to keep that didn’t fit in two totes or two bags will be stored for up to 30 days at the campground, Johnson said.
She said she doesn’t think that Sullivan Arena will reach its capacity of 150 this weekend. Many people are warming up in hotel rooms or have found places to stay, using money from their Permanent Fund dividends, she said.
“I really think with less population, we have a greater opportunity for success here,” Johnson said as she walked the arena’s floor late Saturday morning.
Sullivan Arena is in need of about $1.58 million in further repairs, according to a recent estimate sent to Assembly members from the Office of Management and Budget.
Some are from its time as a shelter, like repairing broken windows and doors, damaged seats, railings and cleaning up graffiti, Johnson said. The most expensive repairs involve tasks like replacing more than 50 arena flood lights that don’t work or fixing a leaking roof over the VIP room — repairs that have to do with wear over time and the 2018 earthquake, she said.
A new era at Sullivan
It was quiet inside Sullivan Arena as afternoon turned to evening Saturday, save for the shuffle of shoes on the concrete floors and the hum of stadium lights overhead. About a dozen people slept on cots or settled their belongings into plastic totes. Others checked in with staff at tables by the entrance.
“This is definitely not ideal. And we’re hoping this is the last year we have to do this,” said Robert Seay, who works coordinating shelter care for the Anchorage Health Department.
Seay has seen different iterations of mass care inside the arena under multiple service providers, starting from when it was a COVID-19 emergency response. Then, as months turned to years, the Sullivan functioned largely as a holding facility, without appropriate measures or resources for moving people toward better housing options.
Seay thinks this current model will be significantly different.
Many now coming to Sullivan opted to do so after spending weeks outdoors in cold, wet conditions.
“I think coming back in here, it’s just, ‘If I wasn’t here, I’d be out there.’ A lot of people are more mindful, and I’m hoping they can be a little more accountable,” Seay said.
Another change is that the facility’s new operator, Henning Inc., is made up of staff that all have one degree or another of lived experience on the streets, in recovery or with incarceration.
“We’re not monitoring homeless people. We’re providing a service,” said Shawn Hays, executive director of Henning, who was at Sullivan Arena on Saturday coordinating with staff.
Hays said they also learned lessons about what does not work in a mass care shelter. For example, they made sure their staff and clients can use parts of the building that were previously closed off, including the bathrooms, as opposed to rented port-a-potties.
“That was a hard no for us. We know what happens in port-a-potties,” Hayes said. “Drugs. Assault. Death. OD’ing.”
There are also fewer meals on site than in the past, or at Centennial: Henning has subcontracted for one hot dinner, and otherwise solicited donations for breakfast and snacks from four partner organizations.
“We don’t want people getting used to being sheltered,” Seay said.
The idea is to get clients enrolled into benefits programs, working and developing relationships outside the shelter. Both said they hope Sullivan will work as a springboard for getting people on their feet, meaning people won’t settle there.
“I don’t want it for us. I don’t want it for them. I don’t want it for the city, I just think we can do much better,” Seay said.
Earlier in the day, George Kehm sat alone on his green cot, quiet and resting amid the expanse of identical cots that lined the floor of the cavernous arena. Kehm began staying at Centennial after he was released from prison this summer, he said. He took the fourth or fifth bus out on Saturday morning.
Altogether, he’s spent 15 or 16 years incarcerated, he said. He’s been convicted of felonies, including a sexual assault. He’s an addict, and he’s trying to get clean and into recovery, he said.
”I feel like I got a long way ahead of me,” he said. “I feel pretty overwhelmed sometimes.”
He might have a better chance at Sullivan than Centennial, he said. It was hard to avoid drugs at the campground. It was hard to avoid them in prison, he said.
”For me, it’s either this or jail,” Kehm said.
‘As soon as folks are ready to go, we’ll take them’
About 140 people were still camping in the park when Braniff and Carla Gage, an administrator in the Anchorage Health Department, closed and locked the gate at 5 p.m.
A few minutes later, Johnson received a text: 61 people had checked into the Sullivan shelter so far.
She’d reached her goal of getting 60 people into shelter on Saturday, the first big push, Johnson said.
“Mission accomplished,” she said.
On Sunday, they’ll begin busing to Sullivan again.
Over the next few days, “we’re just going to keep running it — as soon as folks are ready to go, we’ll take them,” Braniff said. As the week goes on, the rides will wind down, he said.
A little over half the people who arrived at Sullivan on Saturday had been bused there by the city. Some made their way from Centennial on their own. A few had trickled in from unsanctioned camps along the Chester Creek corridor, Braniff said. A handful who took a ride from the city out of Centennial left the arena with their gear and walked off to set up camp elsewhere.
At closing time, vehicles were still parked in spots all over the campground. Some people were packing up. Many camps were fully intact as some more experienced campers dug in and prepared for the coming colder conditions.
“We’ll try every avenue to get them inside,” Johnson said.
Then, once more shelter space is open, Parks and Rec will post 10-day abatement notices at Centennial.
Several people have told Johnson they won’t leave until they see the notices at the campground.
There was still electricity and running water Saturday evening. Braniff said both would soon be shut off, the power likely early next week.
A little after 5 p.m., Bean’s Cafe was still serving its last meal inside the campground. Bean’s may continue serving food for another week or so in a parking lot nearby, Braniff said. He wasn’t sure.
Three cars had lined up at the gate, trying to get in. One man got out of his car and approached Braniff, and asked him if he could drive in and pick up the belongings his wife had been packing all day.
Parks and Rec employees drove the AnchorRIDES bus over to his site, where large tents were still standing, and began loading the gear onto the bus to drive it out for him.