Jose Valcarcel has a favorite perch up high in the stadium seats overlooking roughly a hundred cots on the floor of the Sullivan Arena.
“I love this spot. Because you won’t see me. If I’m in the bleachers you won’t see me. I move around, I’m in different areas, and I just watch. Sometimes I be three hours just sitting around watching,” said Valcarcel, 57, who is in charge of security for Anchorage’s primary shelter for the homeless.
His job is to keep things safe and orderly in the cavernous arena.
“As we’re growing we’re gonna make sure we stay in control,” Valcarcel said. “We’re not gonna let it get out of control, because if you let it get out of control it’s gonna be the same as it was before.”
A new nonprofit group, Henning Inc., is in charge of the low-barrier shelter inside the Sullivan, and insists it will not repeat the mistakes and policy missteps that gave the facility an abysmal reputation during its previous tenure.
The Sullivan was not built to be a shelter. But in 2020, with the pandemic lockdowns upending everything from schools to grocery stores, local officials in the Berkowitz administration decided to house hundreds of homeless people inside to prevent overcrowding in Anchorage’s established shelters and risk COVID-19 outbreaks. After more than two years, multiple contractors in charge of operations, and reports of dire conditions, Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration wound down the facility before shuttering it completely at the end of June, directing hundreds of homeless people instead to Centennial Campground across town. But as temperatures dropped and other options proved unworkable, Bronson officials reversed course this fall, reopening the Sullivan as a shelter earlier this month.
“What’s different this time is that we have a staff that are peers,” said Shawn Hays, Henning’s executive director. “Most, if probably not all of us, have that lived experience. Whether it’s homelessness, incarceration, behavioral health, trauma, whatever. And that’s what’s really allowed us to really come beside people this time. Versus monitoring a bunch of people.”
Henning is a relatively new player among the city’s social service providers, and it has expanded fast. Just two years after registering with the state, the nonprofit now runs the non-congregate shelter at the Aviator Hotel downtown, the 200-bed low barrier shelter inside the Sullivan, and is moving to operate another 55 units at the former Alex Hotel that the city recently acquired.
Hays, though, is not new to the world of homelessness or social services in Alaska. After a long tenure working for local providers she oversaw operations at the Sullivan under a previous provider until she was fired last fall by Bronson with little explanation.
Now, Hays and her team say lessons from what did not work in the last iteration of the Sullivan have shaped how they’re running things. That started with hiring staff who have been exactly where many of the clients inside the shelter now find themselves.
“Only someone that’s been through it can identify with it,” said Rob Seay, who works as the municipality’s non-congregate shelter manager.
Seay himself came back from homelessness. Hays, too, lived down-and-out for as a teenager in San Francisco, doing what she needed to survive, and brings that experience to bear on her professional work.
“I remember being out on the streets like it was yesterday,” she said.
Both Seay and Hays say the staff’s intimate familiarity with homelessness, addiction, and recovery are core to their model, not incidental to it. They have kept a number of shelter services in-house rather than parceling them out to subcontractors, as had been done under previous management. That includes keeping case workers on-site to be in more direct contact with clients, having security and safety patrol employees who work for and report to Henning, and using non-congregate rooms in other shelters, along with entry-level jobs involved in maintaining them, as part of a “pipeline” for people entering the Sullivan.
“When we look at this entire facility, we see future work force. We don’t just see people that are trying to find shelter. It’s like, we’re trying to work ourselves out of a job,” Seay said. “We know these folks wanna work. I know in my walk I was desperate, I was addicted, I was homeless, but I still wanted to work. I wanted to be productive.”
When the Sullivan was shut down this summer, it created an opportunity for a reset. Henning agreed to take a $1.5 million contract to run it through the end of the year as long as it was given the latitude to exercise control over the facilities to make it safer and more orderly.
One key part of that has been sealing all the different entrances and exits around the arena’s perimeter so that clients coming in are routed through one main entryway for screening, data collection and bag checks. No one is able to quietly sneak in through a door left propped open by a friend.
“Being able to control access points is 100% vital, you have to be able to do that or you don’t have control of anything,” said William Scott, shelter manager at the Sullivan. “Having our in-house safety patrol is huge. Because there was a pretty big disconnect there last time.”
In its earlier configuration, the Sullivan was approved to sleep 510 people, an enormous volume that made it nearly impossible to enforce rules and keep order, according to Scott. Now, under rules determined by the Anchorage Assembly, its maximum capacity is 200.
Scott and his team boarded up entryways to upper decks of the stadium seating that people used to sneak up to. Meals are eaten in a designated area to curb pests. And Henning refused to bring back Port-a-Potties, which people staying at Sullivan had to use before rather than the indoor bathrooms. Valceral said the Port-a-Potties were foul, unsafe, and one of the main ways people were able to get drugs into the building.
“This was what you’d call a trap house. And security guards were just walking right by,” Valceral said of the Sullivan under previous management. “We’re not tolerating no nonsense. We don’t want things like they were before.”
The arena’s plumbed bathrooms are now open and monitored, the stall doors removed to dissuade drug use. There are showers and laundry machines on-site.
Even with a relatively short tenure, Henning has a solid reputation among other service providers and local officials.
“From what I’ve heard from everyone that engages with the system, they’ve done a great job,” said Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant, whose district covers both the Aviator non-congregate shelter, as well as the Sullivan. He’s heard few complaints about Henning’s management over either facility, which he views a yardstick for an operator’s performance.
A big part of Valceral and others’ work is spotting potential trouble and nipping it in the bud. A native of the Bronx who still bounces on the balls of his feet like a boxer, Valceral came to Alaska in the early ‘80s with “the dope game.” He racked up a string of state-level felonies for dealing drugs and assaults before eventually pleading guilty in federal court to selling handguns and crack to an informant, receiving a 4-year prison sentence. Around that time he got sober, found God and committed himself to serving others, which included street ministry and, now, helping people repair their lives.
“I see a lot of what I used to be like in these individuals,” Valceral said. “We’re dealing with a lot of broken people that haven’t been heard.”
When nonprofits and social service providers talk about the benefits of “lived experience” in helping the homeless, this is what they mean. For many clients, men and women like Valceral have more credibility guiding those in active addiction or shattered by trauma toward an alternative way of living than, say, a comfortable middle-class office worker with the right advanced degree.
“Once upon a time, I was of the streets. I know the streets. And a lot of these guys I sold dope to,” Valceral said. “I know everybody.”
All around the Sullivan are flyers on the wall spelling out what the rules are, and the consequences for breaking them. If Valceral catches someone sneaking booze at their cot he’ll start with a warning. If it’s more serious, like when he spotted a man he knew who was trying to sell hard drugs inside the shelter, he tells them firmly they cannot stay.
“He had to be put out, because what he was trying to do was set up shop,” Valceral said.
The Sullivan is a low-barrier shelter, meaning it won’t turn someone away because they’re drunk or high. But Henning is strict about barring anything that threatens clients’ safety, including dealing drugs, predation, theft, trafficking or carrying around weapons.
At the bag-check station by the front door Valceral opened up a big drawer filled with confiscated objects.
“This right here is what we take from people,” he said. Inside was an assortment of knives, pliers, bear spray, scissors, heavy-gauge fence wire, a screwdriver, a box cutter, a hammer, a hatchet, mace, and at least one long-bladed knife in a sheath. Each was tagged with a yellow piece of paper.
“They got their name on it and everything, so when they leave they check it back out,” Valceral said.
Below the weapon drawer was another for drug paraphernalia turned up in bag checks.
“If they don’t wanna give it up they can leave,” Valceral said. “Don’t bring it here.”