Anchorage Assembly will consider delaying Sullivan Arena closure for most vulnerable shelter residents

Sullivan Arena is likely to remain open as a low-barrier shelter past the looming April 30 deadline that Anchorage Assembly members unanimously voted to approve earlier this month. Though details are not yet ironed out, the intention is to reduce the overall capacity while allowing people who are severely sick and disabled to stay at the arena as weather improves and more alternative housing is secured.

Members are working on a measure for a short-term extension of the facility that the full Assembly will see and vote on during a meeting Tuesday.

“This is the right and humane thing to do,” said Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant said at a news conference announcing the proposed plan Wednesday.

City officials are scrambling to find housing, shelter and resources for hundreds of people who will have few places to turn when the Sullivan and two converted hotels shut down operations. The April 30 deadline is in place because of a combination of funding running out and a growing political imperative to find a better model than a mass-care facility inside a repurposed hockey arena.

“We spend roughly $1 million a month to keep the Sullivan open, with no end in sight,” said Daniel Volland, who represents the Fairview area, which has seen many of the most concentrated negative impacts from the shelter. “Housing, and well-operated permanent shelter, provide stability. But the Sullivan is not a stable solution.”

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Ahead of the announcement, Assembly members held a meeting of the Housing and Homelessness Committee, and heard an array of concerns about the pending shelter closure. Chief among them is the large number of people who are incapable of caring for themselves independently and are unlikely to survive if pushed onto the street. The reasons include severe substance abuse, mental illness and disabilities, which makes placing them in alternate facilities difficult, on top of a shortage of available beds and housing units.


“We’re not talking about people who can manage themselves. These are people who cannot manage themselves in the community without supports,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, head of Restorative Reentry Services, a small firm that has contracted with the municipality to advise on shelter operations. “Wheelchairs, canes, walkers, inability to walk for long periods of time. It also includes people with significant and severe mental health issues.”

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“We know that this population is not going to fare well outside,” said Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless coordinator.

During the Housing and Homelessness committee’s meeting, members discussed the status of several programs and proposals in the works to shelter people. Those include discussions of purchasing prefabricated tiny homes or repurposing modular buildings owned by the school district, expediting client intakes for public assistance programs, and drafting a resolution requesting financial help from the state.

“The need in our community has well exceeded the ability of our local government to respond,” said Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance. “I think this is an emergency situation.”

All of the policy proposals will take significantly more time than officials and shelter residents currently have.

“There is a timeline for this process. None of it is quick,” said Terria Ware, chief operations officer with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness of connecting hard-to-house clients with benefits like Medicaid waivers. “The population that we are talking about…usually a 6-to-18 month timeframe.”

Even modular buildings already owned by the Anchorage School District require retrofitting to meet safety codes and comport with land-use requirements.

“We are working voraciously on that angle,” said Assembly member Kevin Cross, who has been looking at revisions to the municipality’s building and zoning rules that could facilitate more housing and shelter options.

“There’s a healthcare component missing here,” said Shantai McDermott, a nurse practitioner who works on homeless transitional housing programs.

She warned that without adequate screening and mental health care, unstable clients with severe mental impairments are liable to destroy modular units or rented apartments if they are placed in housing they aren’t sufficiently equipped for.

McLaughlin was one of several people working on the city’s homelessness issue who recommended that the Assembly extend operations at the Sullivan in a reduced capacity, at least through May to create more time to find better alternatives and allow the weather to warm up.

According to a census by McLaughlin’s organization of 337 individuals staying at the Sullivan last week, 174 were evaluated to be so severely disabled they need to be housed in a low-barrier shelter. In a report submitted to the Assembly, she recommended a “step-down plan” for demobilization that entails keeping shelter available for 190 individuals through May 31.

The Assembly will discuss such a proposal, including how many people will be allowed to stay and for how long, at its meeting on Tuesday, with a vote likely to follow.

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.