On Wednesday morning, the final 37 homeless clients in Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena shelter packed up their belongings and left.
A few staff members helped them load large wheeled carts up with their waterproof duffels, totes, and plastic bags. The loud rumble and squeal of the wheels echoed through the subdued atmosphere as workers dragged the belongings outside.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the arena has served as the city’s only walk-in, low-barrier homeless shelter. Now, even in the absence of other options, city officials say it’s time to close the Arena as a shelter for good.
This year, the city shut down its emergency winter shelter operations on May 1, closing the congregate shelter in Sullivan to all but 90 of the sickest and most vulnerable homeless clients — those with active severe mental illness, substance use disorders, medical needs and mobility issues, or a combination.
Those who remained at Sullivan had one more month — until noon Wednesday — to find another shelter bed or housing option.
Many clients still didn’t know where they would go.
“We’re displacing the ones with the highest needs,” said Shawn Hays, CEO of Henning, Inc., the nonprofit that ran the city’s emergency winter shelters.
“I want society to know that this is how we’re treating our most vulnerable people,” she said.
At about 10:30 a.m., Henry Sam and his younger brother, Christopher, sat inside on the mezzanine, waiting.
A pile of bags, totes and other belongings sat nearby. Three small animal crates, stacked, held Christopher’s emotional support cats, Marshall, Stormy and Thunderpaws.
Sam was stressed.
“We’re still waiting to hear back on where we’re going,” he said. If Sam didn’t have his brother to look after, he wouldn’t be worried, he said.
Sam said his brother is mentally disabled and needs the cats: “They help bring him out of his shell,” Sam said.
But the pets have hindered them from getting into housing or another shelter.
Like Sam, the others leaving Sullivan are facing significant challenges.
Options are scarce. Waitlists are long for private shelters, transitional and supportive housing, substance abuse treatment and housing vouchers.
As of Tuesday, about 50 people were staying at Sullivan, said Cathleen McLaughlin, CEO of Restorative Reentry Services, the third-party contractor hired by the city to help oversee its winter shelter shutdown and advise on homelessness policy.
Of those, several people were moving into shelter beds at the women-only Downtown Hope Center. A few were moving to Brother Francis Shelter, to the Complex Care Facility, and into housing programs for veterans, McLaughlin said.
The 37 remaining didn’t have a spot secured, she said.
But, “everyone will have a place tonight. We will make that happen. Everyone is going to have a place to rest that wants one,” she said Wednesday.
Over the last few weeks, McLaughlin and other homeless service providers have scrambled to find “creative ways to deal with the last gasp of the Sullivan,” she said.
She’d pushed for an organization to open a makeshift shelter, or “a place to rest,” for those leaving Sullivan with no plan or place to go, McLaughlin said. On Wednesday, that plan fell through.
So McLaughlin urgently worked with Henning staff to find motel rooms for the Sam brothers and a few others.
Restorative Reentry Services will pay for one week at the motel, using a private donation. Then, it will be up to the clients, and their Henning housing specialists and case workers, to figure out what comes next.
“What we’re doing is, I call it the ‘onesie-twosie.’ We’re just taking people. And I’m making deals with various providers. And we’re using community funds that were given to me by philanthropists to underwrite this,” McLaughlin said.
The Mush Inn had vacancies that morning. But only one room was available by the time the Sam brothers began loading belongings into a van, just after noon.
Henning staff made frantic phone calls. The Motel 6 in Midtown had open rooms. They’d take pets.
On Wednesday, only a few left to camp or sleep on the street, McLaughlin said.
Doug Shepard was among those.
Just before noon, he wheeled himself away from Sullivan, heading west in his chair along 16th Avenue. He lost his leg about three years ago, amputated after an injury from a fall became infected, he said.
He’s been homeless for about eight years, he said. He said he isn’t concerned by the Sullivan’s closure.
“Doesn’t bother me — nah. Doesn’t bother me at all. It was nice while it was there,” he said.
“I’m gonna go out to Muldoon and get a jug first,” he said. “It’s been six months.”
Then, he’ll go to his favored spot in Midtown near the Chuck E. Cheese.
“The bank is right there, the Alaska USA. And across the street is the pot store, and then there’s Fred Meyers and Walmart,” Shepard said.
He’ll sleep on the ground, he said. There’s a dumpster with clean cardboard to use.