Inside Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena on Monday morning, people sifted through bins of donations that shelter staff had set up on the west end of the arena floor.
Eric Travis Clark, 33, grabbed some new socks, a small hydration pack, a poncho, a backpack and a pair of brand new boots. Clark said he’s been experiencing homelessness on and off since he was a teenager, though he’s lived with friends and family before.
He packed up his belongings onto a small luggage cart, preparing to camp. He wasn’t sure where.
“I didn’t really want to, but they’re giving us no choice,” Clark said.
On Monday at noon, the city closed Sullivan Arena to all but 90 of the most vulnerable and disabled clients, dropping from its previous 360-person capacity.
Some who left the emergency winter homeless shelter had spots lined up in other shelters or programs. But over the last two weeks, many dozens have left the city’s shelters to camp, with nowhere else to go.
The last of them dispersed into the city’s streets and green spaces Monday. The city’s emergency shelter sites at the Aviator and Alex Hotels also closed May 1.
The closure represented a bleak moment in history for Anchorage: It’s the first time in recent memory that the city has turned homeless residents to the street with no sanctioned shelter or legal camping to receive them.
“Honestly, today is a sad day. It’s a hard day. People who are right on the edge of hope are all going out because they don’t meet the criteria,” said Monica Gross of Restorative Reentry Services, the third-party contractor hired by the city to help oversee its winter shelter shutdown and advise on homelessness policy.
With no new walk-in shelter yet open, the city is facing a new reality — a summer in which the number of unhoused people living on Anchorage’s streets without shelter or sanctioned camping will potentially more than double.
“We’re going to see camps pop up — camps everywhere,” said Rob Seay, deputy director with Henning Inc., the service provider that ran Sullivan during its latest iteration as a shelter.
‘This isn’t a win for our community’
For decades until the COVID-19 pandemic, the Brother Francis Shelter served as the main walk-in, low-barrier shelter. But the pandemic transformed the city’s sheltering options — Brother Francis shifted away from low-barrier operations, until last June. A daytime navigation center has opened in the former Bean’s Cafe building.
While officials say hundreds of people have been moved into various forms of housing, the need for Sullivan Arena persisted as the city’s primary walk-in shelter. At times, up to 500 people sought refuge there in winter.
The Anchorage Assembly had planned to shutter Sullivan completely by the end of April. But after service providers pushed for more time to help clients find alternatives, the Assembly voted for a one-month extension for 90 people — a number that forced providers to narrow down the arena’s population to its most vulnerable clients.
But on Monday, the rest had to leave.
Some at Sullivan Arena loaded their bags into cars — Lyft rides ordered by Cathleen McLaughlin, CEO of Restorative Reentry Services.
A community member donated the money to pay for rides, she said.
“It’s the right thing to do, give people dignity and respect if we’re asking people to leave,” she said.
Destinations included the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, a high-barrier shelter that requires sobriety with a religious component; a few public libraries; encampments established by people already living unsheltered; and the Black Angus Inn, “which may or may not work for these guys,” McLaughlin said.
There were still a few wins on Monday, McLaughlin said. A woman could get into House of Transformations if she wanted to go later Monday night or Tuesday. Someone was getting into Henry House.
But overall, for McLaughlin and other service providers at Sullivan, Monday’s drawdown to 90 people was painful.
“I don’t, there’s nothing we can do … I have to follow the policymakers, but I wish they would — people would just come down here and walk through this,” she said. “We have a guy with a broken hand, he didn’t make the list, but he needs a Lyft to the hospital. We have another guy who needs a ride to his Fairview camp. I mean, we’re doing it orderly, but this isn’t a win for our community.”
Later in the day, Clark dragged his overflowing luggage cart up the cement ramp leading into the Sullivan Arena parking lot.
“I don’t have a destination,” he said. He asked a Henning staff member for a lighter. She didn’t have one, but she gave him a hug goodbye.
Clark stood for a long time in the lot, wearing a gray T-shirt and vest in the icy cold wind. He smoked a cigarette, watching others leave.
Later, he slipped away, dragging his belongings with him.
Earlier in the morning, Matthew Burke lugged a wagon up the hill at Eagle Street, with gravel crunching underfoot, spring’s gulls shrieking overhead and Sullivan Arena behind him.
Burke, 39, had neatly packed the wagon with his possessions: A hospital discharge bag full of clothes. A clean pair of New Balance sneakers. A blanket. An Ozark Creek tent, handed out to people leaving the Sullivan Arena shelter.
Burke is originally from the Los Angeles area. He said he’d first come to Alaska for “spiritual reasons” and to work. He had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, he said, and found Alaska a hard place to get medical care.
When he landed at Sullivan Arena in early April, he knew it was temporary: Signs announcing the shelter’s closure had already been posted. Still, despite drug use that made the place feel chaotic, Burke had managed a fruitful few weeks in Anchorage’s city-operated shelter.
He’d filled out forms for SNAP benefits and Medicaid. He’d been assigned a housing coordinator and visited a navigation center. He’d joined waitlists and completed applications.
“Seemed like it was going to go pretty smooth,” he said.
Then the shelter closed. Burke wasn’t among the people chosen to stay inside the building. Instead he was given a tent. Now he was casting around for a place to rest.
“There’s nowhere to camp legally, right? Without paying?” he said.
Lacking other plans, he decided to spend the night at a bus shelter in Spenard. Burke was wearing shorts and flip-flops, and while the asphalt was clear, the trails and forests were patchy with soft snow and mud. A business owner had allowed him to sleep in the parking lot there before, he said. It was “a beautiful experience.”
“I can panhandle over there,” he said.
Maybe he’d try to get back to California.
“I’m going to start working on my ticket.”
A growing camp
Many people are going to established encampments or known places that have been used before, said Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless coordinator. That includes Davis Park in Mountain View, Cuddy Family Midtown Park, the former Alaska Native hospital site on Third Avenue near downtown, where the ground is relatively dry — an important quality after this winter brought an above-average snowpack to Anchorage. Some have even said they’ll go to Centennial Park in East Anchorage, where the city last summer directed people to camp after shutting down Sullivan Arena for a few months last summer.
Near the arena, an outdoor camp is growing.
Anchorage police officers Jason Cusack and Sandy Taveras picked a path through the muddy woods to speak with campers along the Chester Creek Trail south of the Ben Boeke Ice Arena.
Several green tents appeared to have been set up in recent days there, ringed by yellow crime scene tape.
The officers asked campers if they knew anything about the crime scene tape — it wasn’t clear how it had come to be strung around the camp — and asked them about how things were going there that day.
“Anyone causing any problems at all today that you’ve seen?”
“No,” said Jessie Gomez.
Gomez had been homeless for about two years.
Until last week, she had been staying in the cramped warming area at Sullivan Arena. With an eviction impending, she and some others had taken their new tents and set up camp outdoors. Others had secured sleeping bags and small heaters.
People who’d been staying at the shelter had scattered around Anchorage, Gomez said: She knew of people heading to Cuddy Park, near the Loussac Library, and back to Centennial Park, where hundreds of people camped in a city-sanctioned camp last summer.
“The most logical places,” she said.
She’d rather be staying in the shelter.
“Considering it’s warmer, I’d rather stay there,” she said. “Knowing there’s security.”
In a clutch of tents about 50 feet away, Patrick Ortiz rested in a new tent, given to him at Sullivan Arena two days ago.
Ortiz said he had no idea where to go when he left the shelter. He saw the other tents and decided to join them. He wasn’t sure how long he’d stay. He disappeared back inside his tent.
Just then a new camper arrived, his belongings spilling from bags onto the soggy ground as he set up a temporary home.
Figuring out where to go
A few people remained standing on Sullivan Arena’s steps above the quieted lot just before 2 p.m. Monday. With the black hood of his coat pulled up over a beanie, Stephen Downell, 59, asked a Daily News reporter for help. Where could he go? Downell had been at Sullivan for six weeks, he said. He didn’t have a tent or any gear. He didn’t want to camp, he said, his voice breaking.
“I’ve never even done that kind of thing before,” he said.
A black army-style duffel lay at his feet as he smoked a rolled cigarette.
McLaughlin asked if he would go to the Rescue Mission. Or, did he have family to go to?
Eventually, Downell got into a Lyft, heading to his mother’s house near Rabbit Creek. He should be able to find a key to get in, he said. His mother is in the hospital, but his brother might be there.
As Downell left, a woman carrying two large, clear bags full of clean clothes arrived.
“My father just abandoned me here,” she said.
McLaughlin and social workers began figuring out where she could go.
Marc Lester contributed reporting.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Brother Francis Shelter is operating by referral only. Brother Francis resumed operations as a low-barrier shelter starting in June 2022, and people can self-refer and walk-up for services.]