Even as the Sullivan Arena winter homeless shelter closes, Anchorage city leaders are grappling with a dire reality: The city must find a new shelter site or build one now, or it could have no other option come fall but to use the arena again.
Assembly members and health department officials discussed details of the situation during a Wednesday committee meeting. The short summer construction season is already underway, and there are currently few realistic options where shelter could be stood up in time. Remaining funding is thin.
“We’re going to be putting people back in the Sullivan, unless we all come together within the next week, two weeks, three weeks and start building a facility or identifying a facility. Because right now, we are making plans for the Sullivan Arena. And that’s just unacceptable,” said Alexis Johnson, homeless coordinator with the Anchorage Health Department.
City law requires Anchorage to open emergency winter shelter when temperatures drop below 45 degrees.
“We’re like a month away from solstice and it’s going to start getting dark and cold sooner than we expect,” Assembly member Daniel Volland said.
On May 1, the city shut down its emergency winter shelters at the Alex and Aviator Hotels and closed Sullivan to most homeless clients, save 90 of the most vulnerable people.
[In April, a record 8 people believed to be homeless died outside in Anchorage]
The city has since seen an upswell in unsheltered homelessness. Hundreds of people left the arena with nowhere to go. Sullivan will fully shutter at the end of the month.
Over the winter — from October through April — more than 2,000 individual people used the city’s winter shelter services, according to Andrea Nester, housing and homeless program manager for the Health Department, who presented data to the committee.
In total, the city has directed $23.4 million in alcohol tax revenue, and a small amount of Health Department operating funds, toward winter shelter and other homelessness services since 2022, Nester said. It spent about $8.8 million in 2022 and has directed $14.6 million toward services so far this year.
Funding has always been an issue, and the situation is becoming more dire, Johnson said.
“We have to come to the realization that we have been spending way beyond our means for the last two years and this money is no longer there,” Johnson said. “This $23 million is not going to be there next year.”
The Health Department is working on a plan next winter with a $4 million budget, she said.
“Last winter, we spent way beyond that to shelter 2,000 people,” Johnson said.
The Assembly and Bronson administration, in a resolution last week, requested support, policy and funding changes from state and federal lawmakers.
The Health Department’s cost analysis doesn’t include federal dollars the Assembly also spent on homelessness relief. The city in 2022 used $11.8 million to fund the purchase of two former hotels for conversion into low-income housing. One is undergoing renovations, and the other recently opened as leased housing units.
The city-owned Golden Lion Hotel will also open in the coming months. The administration expects to get the necessary documents to the Assembly by its next meeting on Tuesday, Johnson said.
Community frustrations have mounted as the city has spent millions on homelessness in recent years, yet it has remained reliant on Sullivan. The city has used it off and on as a homeless shelter since 2020, when it opened the building as a mass care site as part of its COVID-19 response.
Anchorage leaders have grappled with this situation before. When Mayor Dave Bronson was elected in 2021, he scrapped plans from the previous administration to purchase several buildings for shelter and other homelessness services, and the city continued to keep Sullivan Arena open.
Bronson closed the arena last June and abruptly directed homeless residents to camp in the city’s Centennial Park. But with no alternative ready at the end of September, the city reopened Sullivan. Several ideas for alternative sites have fizzled in the face of community pushback, including a recent fledgling idea from some Assembly members to purchase and convert the Arctic Rec Center.
Last fall, the Assembly quashed a proposal from Bronson to construct a large shelter in East Anchorage after learning that the administration violated city code and green-lit millions in construction work without Assembly approval. (The construction management firm has since sued for payment, and the Assembly is set to consider a proposed settlement next week.)
“I think the thing that’s been missing in this community for many years is enough community will to get this done without it devolving into an argument or a fight over where it goes,” Assembly member Anna Brawley said at Wednesday’s meeting. “I think that’s one serious thing that the whole community needs to grapple with, including leadership.”
Assembly member Kevin Cross spoke in support of finishing the partially constructed homeless shelter project at Tudor and Elmore roads.
“We own the land. The permits are pulled and ready to go. The equipment is sitting in warehouses,” Cross said. “Roger Hickel sat right here and said, ‘120 days on the outside.’ It’s not brain science. I completely agree with Ms. Brawley when she says, ‘Do we have the fortitude and do we have the will to do it?’ We have the resources. We have the means. We don’t apparently have the political will to do it, because it’s still collecting dust over there. And that’s what frustrates me.”
In a March resolution, the Assembly set a goal to open a permanent, year-round, low-barrier shelter by Nov. 1.
Realistically, the city will need to find an existing building, because it doesn’t have time to build one, Volland said.
Johnson told Assembly members, “I think we’re behind the eight ball.”
“I think that we’re spending a lot of time in committees and town halls and community engagements and we’re going to come up with the same answer that we’ve had,” she said.