Janel Walton stood in an empty lot up the hill from Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena. She pointed to a body-shaped outline still visible on the frozen ground.
It’s the spot where, a few weeks ago, Walton found a man lying face down in the snow, unresponsive. He’d held a glass pipe in one hand. She called 911. A dispatcher gave her instructions as she waited for police. She’d turned him over and gave him chest compressions.
Walton had spotted him while driving to work. It was dark, and at first she mistook him for a pile of abandoned clothes.
Walton’s teenage daughter watched as she tried to keep him alive.
“I still don’t know if he lived,” Walton said.
Since the city first opened the arena as a mass shelter in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the Waltons and others who live, work and own businesses in the area have faced an endless stream of public safety issues: arson, assaults, harassment, public exposure and indecency, trespassing, trash, open drug use and dirty needles littering the sidewalks, large groups congregating, finding people sleeping or passed out along alleyways, in the streets and in front of homes.
Now, Fairview residents and leaders say the problems are getting worse. Frustrated, they are calling on city officials to take action.
They say the city will be hard-pressed to get other Anchorage neighborhoods to accept any new low-barrier shelters or other homelessness-related services in their areas — unless it comes up with a plan to relieve the serious, rampant issues that have plagued the Sullivan Arena area for nearly three years.
“If you can put a facility someplace and the city is able to take responsibility for these off-site impacts in a way that they are significantly reduced or don’t exist, then people aren’t going to be so NIMBY about putting a facility in their neighborhood,” said SJ Klein, vice president of the Fairview Community Council and a member of the city’s Housing, Homeless and Neighborhood Development Commission.
Officials in Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration did not answer questions from the Daily News about the issues and any possible mitigation efforts. A spokesman said officials need time to “to work with all parties to answer.”
Klein owns a wholesale produce company, Alaska Sprouts, on Gambell Street just north of Sullivan Arena. On Halloween he saw a group of people gathered across the street in a large lot.
The next morning, he returned to find Anchorage police investigating. Another business owner had found a woman dead. Her body was next to a dumpster and a Conex storage container.
“That woman didn’t have to die,” Klein said.
Walton also saw the woman’s body that morning.
For the first two years Sullivan was a shelter, the neighborhood had more “scattered, crazy problems,” Walton said.
“But now it’s like — we’re dealing with people dying. It’s shifted in that way. It’s not just little problems anymore. They’re big. They’re big, big problems,” Walton said.
Mayor Dave Bronson closed the former mass shelter in Sullivan at the end of June, transporting many homeless residents to live outside in Northeast Anchorage’s Centennial Campground, without alternative shelter. The city is required by law to open emergency winter shelter when temperatures drop to 45 degrees, but Bronson’s administration did not produce viable plans. On Oct. 1, the city reopened Sullivan as an emergency cold weather shelter, albeit at less than half its previous capacity.
Sullivan is a low-barrier shelter. That means anyone can use it, sober or not. That kind of shelter is often a critical first-entry point for vulnerable people otherwise living on the streets or in unsanctioned homeless camps.
About 188 people were sheltered there earlier this week, according to a health department official. Around 60 more people stay in a separate warming area in Sullivan each night.
Walton, Klein and others say they are witnessing “unchecked predation” outside of the facility, on homeless individuals and on neighbors.
“It’s like sending out a neon sign. This is where you gather if you’re potentially up to no good, want to do some harm and take advantage of some people who are already very, very vulnerable,” Walton said.
Large shelters concentrate vulnerable people in one area. Many of them suffer from a range of mental health issues, substance abuse issues, trauma, and some with criminal histories. Homeless service experts — and Fairview Community Council members — say that small, scattered sites, targeted to serve specific needs, are better for homeless residents and for neighborhoods.
Fairview, historically a low-income neighborhood, has been a “historic dumping ground” for many of Anchorage’s big problems, Klein said.
Allen Kemplen, a former state legislator and president of the Fairview Community Council, said Fairview and the downtown area have asked for help with these issues for many years. But they have seen little action.
Before the pandemic, Brother Francis Shelter downtown was the only real low-barrier shelter in town, without enough space or resources to meet needs. The area around Brother Francis suffered similarly, Kemplen said.
Over the last year, the city has spent millions on building purchases for two local nonprofits, in order to open new facilities, including a complex care facility for medically fragile homeless residents in the former Sockeye Inn, and a workforce and supportive housing complex in the former GuestHouse Inn. It is also running emergency shelters using rooms in the Alex and Aviator Hotels, which tend to house people who are able to live more independently.
But now, “we’ve sort of skimmed out the ones who can be placed safely, and we’re essentially treating the Sullivan Arena kind of like, this is a place where you just throw everyone who’s got mental health, drug addiction, etc. in one location and herd them like animals into one place and do nothing about it,” Walton said.
A plea for help
Fairview Community Council has formed an ad hoc committee on homelessness. In an Oct. 24 letter to the mayor and Assembly, it asked the city for help, outlining a series of requests.
They’ve received no response so far from the administration, said James Thornton, the ad-hoc committee’s chair and owner of Secret Garden, a marijuana retail and growing operation in the neighborhood.
Their list included: 24/7 medical services, the fire department’s Mobile Crisis Team and police presence at the Sullivan; regular APD patrols; safe disposal cans for needles; nearby portable toilets; APD bike and foot patrols on the trail system; and trash removal, among other requests.
They also asked to expedite use of the former Golden Lion Hotel for housing and to bring other housing options online quickly.
In recent meetings, some city officials have suggested that the Fairview neighborhood put together its own volunteer community watch and patrol.
That suggestion angered Walton, Thornton and others. They are already doing just that. They’ve each picked areas to monitor, driving through in the mornings and evenings as much as possible.
“You’re telling us to solve the problem of the entire city of Anchorage, that you put in this location,” Walton said. “And you’re just dumping this on all of us to figure out how to deal with all of this stuff.”
Yes, there’s trash and needles, she said.
“But on the most basic level, we’re dealing with major human death and suffering – unnecessarily,” she said.
Walton is a teacher with the Anchorage School District. Her home’s large picture windows overlook the Sullivan Arena, outlined by the Chugach Mountains.
The lot where Walton tried to resuscitate the man has been the site of regular gatherings, partying, open drug use and bonfires.
“The homeless have dubbed it ‘Hangover Hill,’” Walton said, referencing the name she’s seen in graffiti tags in the area.
Walton has repeatedly painted over graffiti scrawled on buildings in a nearby alley — at least nine times now — since the city first opened Sullivan.
Assembly member Daniel Volland, who represents the area, recently proposed a resolution that would call for the administration to stand up regular neighborhood security and cleanup. The Assembly at its last meeting postponed voting on it until Volland identifies a funding source.
“We need to both take care of our unhoused neighbors and take care of the neighborhood and give them that support as well,” Volland said.
“I essentially wanted to kick the door down to that conversation,” he said.
Nonprofit Henning, Inc. is running the Sullivan shelter, but its staff can only monitor the site, said CEO Shawn Hays. Ideally, the city should have a day center open for homeless residents, and a peer-led and trained outreach team to engage with people congregating in the neighborhoods.
Fairview needs the city to provide eyes on the ground to do that type of outreach work, to deter criminal activity and respond to emergencies, and to better coordinate response services, Klein said.
“Things have gotten really bad today”
Meanwhile, the Sullivan’s neighbors and homeless residents say they feel caught in the middle of a political battle.
The Assembly recently halted construction of a multi-million dollar homeless shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage, after Bronson’s administration green-lit construction before the Assembly was able to approve an increase to the construction contract.
The Bronson administration has so far left the former Golden Lion empty, and has repeatedly resisted the Assembly’s efforts to open it for housing or substance abuse treatment.
“It’s hard not to think that what’s really happening is the mayor and the Assembly are playing chicken,” Klein said. “They’re fighting over the (East Anchorage) navigation center and the Golden Lion. And the neighborhood is suffering because of it.”
As are the homeless residents, Walton said.
“It just doesn’t need to be like this. We have facilities like the Golden Lion,” she said, angry with the mayor’s refusal to use it so far.
Kemplen said he believes a large facility like the East Anchorage shelter would just transplant the same problems to a different neighborhood.
“You need smaller sites, dispersed,” and a plan to mitigate impacts, he said.
On Thursday evening, Thornton and Kemplen walked together up the curve of East 16th Avenue near Sullivan, along a narrow, icy footpath squeezed between a guardrail and fencing. A man followed, yelling and gesturing wildly. The man lurched into the stream of traffic along Gambell. Cars swerved and honked.
The alleys and narrow sidewalks by Sullivan now see constant foot traffic, as Sullivan Arena clients make their way to the nearby Carrs, liquor store, Shell station, and the Black Angus Inn, Kemplen said.
Later on Thursday, the same man stood near Secret Garden. He yelled at pedestrians and cars until Thornton’s security guard told him to move on.
Thornton hired security soon after Sullivan opened, he said. It costs him around $10,000 a month.
In an email Thursday night, Thornton said: “Things have really gotten bad today. We have had several individuals similar to the one that approached us ... be kicked off property after harassing customers and staff.”
A woman had just come to them and said she was raped behind the Shell gas station, he said. “APD is on the way, we are waiting with her.”