‘Who will make it out on the streets? Who would die?’ Uncertainty and fear at what comes after the Sullivan Arena shelter closure

For the second straight year, Anchorage’s largest shelter is set to close with no clear plans for what will happen to vulnerable people with nowhere else to go.

John Bruno is stressed. At the end of the month, when Anchorage’s shelter inside Sullivan Arena closes, he isn’t sure where he’ll go.

“It would relieve a lot of stress if I just knew. Are we going to housing? Are we going camping out in Centennial? It’s the not knowing that really gets you. You don’t know which way to prepare for,” said Bruno, 52, playing Solitaire with a deck of waterproof cards a little before lunchtime Thursday at the shelter.

Bruno and his fiancee are expecting twins this fall and are on all the lists for a stable place to stay. Maybe a room at a converted hotel could open up. Or maybe a housing voucher will come through more quickly than the six- to nine-month estimate he was recently given by a nonprofit agency.

Bruno is one of an estimated 600 people staying in Anchorage’s emergency winter homeless shelters who are now in a precarious state of limbo. The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday voted unanimously to close Sullivan at the end of the month. Funding for rooms at the Aviator and Alex hotels, which the municipality has been using to shelter people, is also scheduled to run out on April 30.

Though officials have proposed a number of alternatives, none are certain, and nobody is clear on what will come next.

For most of the last three years, the arena has been the option of last resort for many of the most vulnerable and sick people in Anchorage, those with nowhere else to go. Many are chronically homeless. Some of them ended up at Sullivan after losing housing in the coldest months.

Others were dropped off at the arena after they were released from jail, the emergency room or the psychiatric hospital. Many show up at the doors just looking to get warm, parking themselves on folding chairs or curling up against the wall of the “warming center,” a part of the arena not much more than a hallway kept separate from the main shelter itself. Some of those who frequent the warming center have been permanently banned from the rest of the building, either for behavioral problems or persistent rule breaking.

[Anchorage Assembly outlines plan for April 30 closure of winter homeless shelters]

Early in 2020, private shelters drastically dropped their capacities due to the pandemic and the need to ease crowding. The city, in an effort to rapidly shelter its vulnerable residents, repurposed Sullivan Arena. A city law also requires Anchorage to open emergency winter shelter each fall when temperatures drop below 45 degrees.

Since Mayor Dave Bronson took office and scrapped previous city homelessness plans, his administration, the Assembly and homeless advocates haven’t been able to agree on long-term solutions, clashing over several proposed projects that quickly became political flashpoints and stalled.

But Sullivan isn’t a long-term solution — and it’s far from ideal for homeless clients. Frustrated with the city’s lack of progress toward longer-term and more effective solutions, and with limited funding resources, Assembly members say it’s time the Band-Aid comes off and that focus shifts forward.

Triage mode

Many homeless clients are scrambling to figure out what comes next. Some will find a spot to camp along the city’s greenbelts or in other wooded areas. Others are hoping the city will reverse course and keep Sullivan running, or open another shelter.

Service providers at Sullivan say they’re in triage mode.

“Who will make it out on the streets? Who would die?” said Shawn Hays, director of Henning Inc., the nonprofit contracted by the city to run the shelter.

Assembly members have indicated they will consider a proposal to continue sheltering those who would not survive.

Cathleen McLaughlin, CEO of Restorative Reentry Services, a third-party contractor advising the city on homelessness policy and shelter operations, is working with Henning to tally the most vulnerable clients.

“There are 40 to 50 that have physical limitations to the extent that they couldn’t live outside,” McLaughlin said. “The wheelchairs, crutches, the canes, the amputations.”

Some have lost limbs to frostbite or diabetes, or have serious medical needs like dialysis. The arena houses people with complex behavioral health conditions and active psychotic disorders who are unable to care for themselves.

“Those are the people that will end up dead in a snowbank,” said Monica Gross, who works with McLaughlin as part of RRS.

Using a five-point triage system, they’ll deliver a list to the city Monday estimating the number of people who they believe must be sheltered or could possibly die on the street, McLaughlin said.

They’re urging the city to come up with a safety net for those who won’t survive outside — at least through May, McLaughlin said. After that, the weather will be warmer, the snow melted, and surviving outside will be a little easier, McLaughlin said.

Andrew Paul Field and his wife, Eliza, are two of the Sullivan clients who McLaughlin and Hays are most worried for.

From physical health issues to substance abuse to the “loss of hope — they’ve been homeless for so long that you can’t just put them out on the street without having a humanitarian question in your mind,” McLaughlin said.

Field sleeps on a cot in the men’s medical area, a nook on the mezzanine floor close to the bathroom for 11 clients who can’t get up and down stairs on their own.

“I’m gonna take my wife and I’m gonna go someplace. I’m not worried. I got blankets. I got a tent,” Field said. “Actually, I don’t have a tent, but I’d like one.”

Field, 62, uses a wheelchair but wanted to show off how he can walk without it. He took a few slow, shuffling steps, leaning heavily on an arm offered for support before returning to his cot.

“Eliza and I can camp. I’ll crawl through the woods if I have to,” Field said.

Long waitlists

Some at Sullivan have such serious disabilities that they cannot take care of basic needs like dressing, feeding themselves or using the bathroom, Gross said. They need so much help that they would not qualify for a room at the Complex Care facility operated by Catholic Social Services, she said.

That shelter is the city’s primary recourse for taking care of homeless people with health and mobility issues. Its waitlist is 47 people deep, McLaughlin said.

On Thursday afternoon, outreach workers and housing specialists set up shop for a few hours at the arena, helping people fill out applications for a housing choice voucher through Alaska Housing Finance Corp. The organization subsidizes rent for those who qualify.

“We’re getting everyone on the list,” Hays said.

But the wait for a voucher is between three months and two years, Hays said.

Clients at Sullivan, generally, are frustrated with the system, Hays said.

Bruno, the client expecting twins with his fiancee, says he has been on the waiting list for a housing voucher for more than 22 months.

For now, there’s not much to do but wait, check in, follow up. Bruno estimates he spends “probably about 14 to 30″ hours a week just trying to sort out housing. And if none of it pans out by the time the arena winds down, he said, he’s comfortable enough with camping along the green belt to pitch a tent. Assuming he can get one.

“If they’re gonna open Centennial Park like they did last year, we’re gonna try going over,” Bruno said, referring to the East Anchorage public campground. City officials directed the homeless to camp there last June when they closed down Sullivan Arena after a two-year run as a COVID-19 mass care emergency shelter.

Last May, with the Sullivan’s closure imminent, Bruno moved into the nearby woods along Chester Creek, where clusters of tent encampments sprouted like mushrooms and stayed for months.

There were perks to being there: plenty of people around, and being in the same spot each day so that his boss could find him for his seasonal job doing landscaping and lawn care. But there were downsides too: Bruno said twice a gun was put to his head by some territorial young men who stalked the area.

Neighbors in the surrounding area fear what another influx of several hundred unsheltered people will bring to the community.

The shelter has flooded the surrounding Fairview neighborhood with significant harmful impacts. Residents have pleaded for the city to find better alternatives, and to do a better job of mitigating the crime, vandalism and predatory behavior.

Many say they don’t want to see Sullivan shuttered with clients simply turned out.

“We care about the folks. We don’t just want to see it go out of our neighborhood, we want to see it be handled properly and folks to be given a chance. And the ones that don’t respect our community need to be treated differently and triaged differently,” said James Thornton, a business owner and member of the Fairview Community Council, during a meeting with Assembly members earlier in the week.

The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness recently estimated about 300 people are already living unsheltered, and that by the end of April, the number will likely swell up to between 700 and 800.

The municipality is, essentially, experiencing an affordable housing crisis.

While the city’s hotel conversions have added low-income units to the stock, it’s not enough. Even the clients at Sullivan most engaged in services often face considerable barriers and wait times for housing.

“Many of these people, they have five or six applications in different programs for housing vouchers — which we don’t have. We just don’t have the housing inventory out there,” McLaughlin said.

Mitigating chaos

Running a low-barrier shelter out of Sullivan Arena is nobody’s idea of a best-case scenario. For months, Henning has looked for ways to mitigate the chaos that comes with housing hundreds of people, many with enormous needs and problems, in a way that keeps the maximum number of clients, staff and neighbors safe.

“I said this last year: I don’t want to be here in a year,” Hays said. “Here we are. And I’m gonna say it again: I don’t want to be here next year.”

Henning has received help from longtime homelessness advocates and professionals on how to improve the operation. A contract issued by the Anchorage Assembly led to McLaughlin coming onboard to help shore things up, and to assist in guiding its closure. Some of the help was nuts-and-bolts: Staff wear neon vests to be identified easier; they carry Narcan to reverse opioid overdoses.

“There’s a shocking amount of drugs, alcohol and sex trafficking,” McLaughlin said, showing an outdoor area behind a sculpture that sees a lot of illegal action.

The issues at the shelter don’t stop at the doors. Her group, along with Henning and community organizations, are focused on how to clean up and secure problem areas outside the building that feed dysfunction inside.

An RV had been squatting in a far-off corner of the parking lot, its owner using it as a home base to sell pressed fentanyl pills, according to several people who work at the shelter. Everyone knew it was happening, McLaughlin said, but nobody was in charge of stopping it. And because under municipal rules you can’t tow a vehicle if there’s someone in it, either the owner or an associate of his made sure they stayed inside.

Eventually, McLaughlin figured out the man had an open warrant and told him the police were going to come looking, which scared him away long enough for the RV to get towed off.

She’s started approaching men cruising the parking lot in their trucks who she suspects are looking to buy sex with money or booze. With her phone out, she snaps their picture to scare them off.

But signs of illness, despair and substance abuse abound all around the arena property.

In the nooks and crannies of the building’s perimeter are heaps of trash, desperate and profane messages graffitied in marker on the walls, mounds of excrement. A chain-link fence was put up several months ago to block off Sullivan Arena from the Ben Boeke ice rink. It cuts across the full length of the parking lot, right into a plowed snow heap. On the mound’s far side are messy middens of vice, trash heaps of malt liquor cans, soiled clothes, orange syringe tops, bottom-shelf shooters, a near-empty bottle of cherry red store-brand cough syrup.

A place to rest

Still, the Sullivan and its warming area is, at least for the next few weeks, a much-needed “place to rest” for those exhausted and in survival mode, McLaughlin said.

Despite the grime, chaos and noise, for Cindy Herr, 62, Sullivan has been a lifeline. She arrived six months ago, after the friend she’d been living with in Wasilla began using drugs and kicked her out, just before the first snowfall.

She spent eight days outside with only some belongings and her two Chihuahuas, Sarah and Terminator. After a few nights with just a sleeping bag in the snow, Herr asked a neighbor for a ride to the shelter.

She said she feels safe there. Staff have been kind. She’s warm, has meals, and her dogs are safe in the pet area. Herr uses a walker, but for the most part, she can get around pretty well, she said.

Now, she’s stressed and afraid.

“It was so cold. I don’t want to end up outside again,” she said.

Herr hopes the city changes course and keeps Sullivan open, or moves her into a hotel room or another shelter.

“It’s scary because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.

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 egoodykoontz@adn.com.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.