Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena shelter is full. As temperatures plunge, homeless seek refuge in a crowded warming area.

For several weeks, Anchorage’s 200-bed emergency winter shelter at Sullivan Arena has been largely full. The facility has been inundated by homeless residents trying to get out of the cold, far beyond its current capacity.

Anchorage officials are weighing whether to add another 160 beds to the Sullivan shelter. A warming area at the facility is now the city’s last-ditch shelter amid a series of snowstorms and frigid temperatures. It has become the latest flashpoint in a continuing political tug-of-war over the city’s homelessness policy.

Sullivan’s warming area — a 30-by-240-foot space on the arena’s northwest mezzanine floor, separate from the shelter and its beds and services — has been crowded with the overflow of people. More than 100 use it on most days and nights. Its highest count in a 24-hour period was 178 individuals.

People using the warming area, homeless service staff at Sullivan, Anchorage Health Department officials and Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration all say adding more beds to the shelter is critical.

The Anchorage Assembly is scheduled to vote Tuesday on Bronson’s call for more beds.

“Tired of being pushed to the side”

On Friday morning, dozens of people rested in Sullivan’s warming area. They lay or sat along its walls, belongings piled next to them. Many used blankets, jackets or sleeping bags as a bed. Some used torn pieces of cardboard. Some slept on the concrete.

At the back, two tables acted as a separation barrier for a women’s area.


[24 people believed to have been homeless died outdoors in Anchorage this year]

Anchorage Safety Patrol workers occasionally arrived to drop people off or pick up people who were too intoxicated to safely stay in the warming area.

In mid-November, bitter temperatures drove people who had been living in camps and on the streets to the shelter. That surge has been compounded by the recent series of snowstorms, said Rob Seay, homeless response and service coordinator with the Health Department.

The warming area is upstairs from where rows of cots line the arena’s floor, where most of the shelter’s clients sleep.

The space is open 24/7 to anyone needing to get out of the cold. A few times a day, staff serve donated snacks. There’s a microwave, hot coffee and water, a few chairs and tables, and access to bathrooms. There’s a charging station for phones and other electronics.

But there are no beds or cots, or any spot that’s comfortable to rest. There aren’t any regular hot meals. There’s also no access to the showers, case management, peer support, and the many other services and resources available to clients with a shelter bed.

Amber Griffin stood outside the warming area Friday, sharing a cigarette with a few other people. Griffin said she’d been there for a few days, after being kicked out of another shelter.

“Last night, they brought us some really cold shepherd’s pie. If it’s ice cold like that and there’s 75 of us using the microwave, we can’t ... we’re all waiting in line,” she said.

“And they told us there’s beds, but we can’t have the beds” — not until the municipality agrees to it, she said.

Griffin said she is angry.

“I’m tired of being pushed to the side,” she said.

At night, it’s “disgustingly packed in,” she said. “We’re literally laying on top of each other.”

To get from the women’s area through the men’s space and to the smoking area or to the bathroom, “you gotta, like step over them in the walkway, and you fall over them. And the wheelchairs can’t even get through,” she said.

Several people in the warming area on Friday were using wheelchairs. One woman had her leg amputated a few months ago, after getting an infection.

[Anchorage leaders were warned this summer about potential snowplow problems]

Frostbite injuries are common, Seay said. Some people in the warming area were missing fingers. One person had lost all on both hands.

“We don’t get to take showers. We get to go to the bathroom once an hour. Smoke once an hour. If we take too long for either of those, then we’re stuck outside until the next (smoking) time,” Griffin said.


A last-minute proposal

Earlier this month the Assembly declined to consider a last-minute proposal from Mayor Dave Bronson to immediately increase Sullivan Arena’s shelter capacity from 200 to 360 people. The Assembly is slated to take it up again this week.

Anchorage law requires the city to open emergency shelters when temperatures drop to 45 degrees. That law also limits emergency shelters to no more than 150 clients in one location without Assembly approval.

Assembly members said they were blindsided by Bronson’s request, and that they’d received no prior communication or data from the administration or health department about a surge in need. It’s unusual for an emergency request from an administration to come to the Assembly without an explanation of the situation.

Bronson himself did not attempt to move the proposal forward for consideration during the Assembly meeting.

When members also did not move the proposal for consideration, Bronson excoriated the Assembly in statements on social media.

Assembly member Felix Rivera and others said Bronson used the situation as a “political cudgel.”

A waitlist

Right now, there is no walk-in, low barrier shelter in Anchorage — just the warming area and a waitlist.

The head of the security team at Sullivan, Jose Valcarcel, said the scarcity of food and resources like blankets and warm clothing adds to an often tense and sometimes volatile atmosphere in the warming area. Fights are common.


“They’re so angry because they’ve got nowhere to sleep. And there’s people on cots getting warm meals right over there,” Valcarcel said, and pointed down toward the arena floor.

The situation leads to more issues with theft and other crimes in the surrounding neighborhoods, he said.

[Back inside Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena shelter, a new nonprofit promises a fresh start]

People leave the warming area and go to the streets in search of food and cigarettes. Many use drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with the cold, Valcarcel said.

Since the city reopened Sullivan, nearby residents and business owners have consistently raised concerns about public health and safety issues in the surrounding streets and parks. They say it’s affecting both the neighborhood and vulnerable homeless residents. Some have reported assaults, rapes, harassment, open drug use, and witnessing predation on homeless people. Some residents have discovered bodies or tried to resuscitate people.

“This is ridiculous,” said Sam Tes, a behavioral health specialist with Henning, Inc., the nonprofit contracted by the city to run its emergency shelters. “We need more funding for capacity.”

Tes said he sometimes drives nearby streets, looking out for people who need to get warm.

Most people in the warming area are also on the waiting list for a shelter bed — “I’d say 95%,” said Alexis Johnson, housing and homeless coordinator with the Health Department.

Each morning, Henning staff rouse everyone and temporarily move them to another area, while staff mop and clean the warming area. Then, homeless residents line up and slowly check back in.

“We don’t consider them clients. They’re not getting access to services. This isn’t a square meal,” Johnson said, nodding to the paper bowls of muffins and pastries that she and Henning staff handed out on Friday.

Johnson said she recognizes many people at Sullivan from Centennial Park Campground, the East Anchorage park where Bronson’s administration sent homeless people to camp when it shut down the city’s COVID-19 mass shelter in Sullivan Arena at the end of June.

At the time, Johnson was Bronson’s chief of staff. She was tasked with overseeing much of the change and implementing his homelessness policy.


Bronson was heavily criticized by Assembly members, residents and community leaders for shuttering Sullivan without other shelter in place, and for not providing basic resources like food to people his administration moved to Centennial.

“I think the biggest issue that I felt was, when the Sullivan closed in the middle of summer, it was a huge issue. But it’s the middle of summer. And now we’re asking to shelter those exact same people in the dead of winter and we’re getting pushback,” Johnson said. “I understand that it’s a lot of people in one neighborhood. But unless we find new funding, this is the best we can work with. And our priority, again, is to keep people alive.”

Questions from the Assembly

The organization overseeing and tracking data for Anchorage’s homelessness response system had also objected to the Bronson administration’s proposal to add beds at Sullivan at the last Assembly meeting. It called on the Assembly to postpone its consideration until Tuesday. System-wide data did not show more beds were needed at Sullivan, and instead showed the shelter had been operating under capacity most nights in November, leaders of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness said.

During a Wednesday committee meeting on homelessness, Assembly members questioned Bronson officials, the coalition and Henning staff about the data discrepancy and the need for more beds at Sullivan.

Caesar Ramirez of Henning, Inc., said there’s a lag in the shelter’s current intake process.

Each client needs to check in at least once a day to secure their bed for the night. If they don’t return that night, Henning staff check them out of their bed the following day, Ramirez said.


[Anchorage Assembly overrides Mayor Bronson’s veto of $1.2 million for Brother Francis Shelter]

The bed is then “flipped” — the belongings of the client who did not return are stored, and a person from the waitlist in the warming area is brought down to the arena floor, Johnson said.

“So there was a lag in data, because you don’t know until the next day,” Johnson said

Johnson said that Henning and the Health Department are currently working with the coalition to get data from the warming area.

Terria Ware, an administrator with the coalition, said it plans to make recommendations on shelter capacity to the Assembly before its next meeting.

Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant and member Daniel Volland, who represent the district where Sullivan is located, said they’re frustrated because the administration has essentially increased Sullivan’s capacity with the warming area already.

Volland said that’s unfair to the Fairview neighborhood, which has seen myriad public safety issues.

“I really just feel like we’re being pressured with a Solomon’s choice,” Volland said. “Either allow us to increase the capacity of the Sullivan, or, you’re not being compassionate and you’re letting people die. I just don’t think that those are the only alternatives.”

“Another question I have is — where is it going to stop? 360? 500? 1,000 people at the Sullivan Arena?” he said.

Rivera asked Johnson whether 160 beds would be enough.

“I don’t have a crystal ball. I couldn’t tell you if 200 more people come out of the woods if they’re going to need a warming facility,” Johnson said.

“We want to offer them services. We want to offer them food. We want to offer them an entry point into getting into housing. We cannot do that without the capacity,” she said.

A stretch of single-digit and below-zero temperatures is forecast for Anchorage in the coming week.

“It’s going to drive them in and our numbers are going to go through the roof even further,” Assembly member Kevin Cross said. “So I guess that’s the question, because we don’t know how many it’s going to be — and it’s just going to be a lot. What do we do next? Where are those beds? And where are we going to find them?

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Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at