One woman’s long road from homeless to housed in Anchorage

A Daily News reporter and photographer followed Monique Crespo on a yearlong journey out of homelessness. In that time, her life changed in ways both triumphant and devastating. Anchorage changed, too.

Monique Crespo stepped out of the van, grasping her walker, and surveyed the East Anchorage apartment complex before her. It was painted gray and tan, with stonework around the door and a bed of tulips.

“My emotions are doing cartwheels, handstands,” she said, her face scrunched up in a wild grin. “What’s the name of that one ballerina move, where they run and jump? I’m doing that, mentally.”

After seven years of surviving the grind of being homeless in Anchorage, Monique was moving into an apartment. Her own apartment.

A year earlier, Monique had been among the last people to leave Anchorage’s mass homeless shelter when the city closed it for the summer. On that hot June day, she had been at what she imagined was her personal nadir: Sitting in a wheelchair with her belongings heaped at her feet in plastic bags, waiting for news of where she might be allowed to sleep that night.

As it turned out, the moment was not Monique’s low point. That would come later.

A Daily News reporter and photographer followed Monique for a year, from the steps of the Sullivan Arena shelter to a daylight basement apartment in Russian Jack. In the days between, Monique’s path led through tents and shelters and hospital stays and caseworkers. As she moved closer to a home of her own, the city was struggling ever more plainly to shelter a rising homeless population.

In the space between, Monique’s life changed in ways both triumphant and devastating. Anchorage changed, too.

Growing up in Anchorage

Long before Monique was homeless, she was a West Anchorage High School cheerleader.


Born Monique Mortera, she grew up mostly in the Turnagain neighborhood. Her mom worked as a waitress at PJ’s, a Spenard strip club. Monique — voted class clown — thrived in high school, a vision of early 1990s big hair in the yearbook. She acted in theater productions, ran track and contemplated becoming a manicurist.

After high school, she moved out of state, eventually landing in California, where the Mortera family had roots. In the San Diego area, Monique sold cars, which came naturally. She attended college and worked at a radio station, keeping the winners of contests on the line with her bubbly chat.

Monique had long struggled with her mental health. After the death of her grandmother, a stabilizing force in her life, Monique became homeless for the first time, in San Diego. She eventually returned to Anchorage, hoping for a fresh start. She attended medical billing and coding classes and tried to hammer out an adult life in the place she’d grown up.

But her mental health worsened. She drank to cope but couldn’t stop. She found herself leaving home in Mountain View to stand by a brick wall and pass a bottle, she said.

Sometime around 2015, Monique’s life fell apart in earnest. “The beginning of my short criminal career,” she called it. She was convicted of a string of low-level crimes: first, passing a bad check. Then an assault, in which she yelled at a boyfriend, scaring him. Trespassing. Shoplifting. She went to jail and learned she’d been evicted when she got out. Then, a more serious charge: second-degree robbery. Just before the pandemic, she racked up another charge, resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.

After stints couchsurfing, Monique became what she considered “truly homeless” around 2016. She woke in the morning wondering where she’d sleep that night. Often, the answer was just to walk around the streets of Anchorage until the darkness bled out of the sky.

Monique felt she was a joyful person at her core. But life on the streets produced a harder version of her. She cycled through shelters after she was repeatedly kicked out for what she called her “anger outbursts.” Survival on the street demanded she command respect, she said. If someone disrespected her or mouthed off, she fought them.

“I didn’t like fighting women,” she said. “But I did.”

The road to Sullivan Arena

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, Anchorage hastily converted its sports and entertainment arena, normally used for hockey games or trade shows, into a giant shelter that allowed cots to spread out to avoid COVID-19 transmission. Instead of a maximum capacity of around 250 guests, like previous shelters, Sullivan Arena attracted upwards of 500 people on some nights. Monique landed there in March 2022. By then, she was unwelcome at other shelters. Sullivan Arena was “low-barrier,” meaning it didn’t turn people away.

Inside the cavernous building, Monique settled into a cot a few inches off the ground in the women’s area. It was loud and chaotic. People’s takeaway trays of food and piles of belongings crowded the cots. Monique called it a “shrew buffet.” It was hard to do anything but endure. She spent a lot of time with headphones on, the peaceful sounds of ocean waves half-drowning out somebody yelling. Monique paired up with a fellow shelter resident named Cindy who often had outbursts or said bizarre things to people. In the shelter, it was safer not to be alone.

She said it felt like she was being dragged underwater: unresolved criminal cases in court, a diagnosis of congestive heart failure that made it ever-harder to breathe and walk.

“I did not thrive,” she said.


She kept a pink kit of nail polishes and manicure supplies as a small gesture of her belief that joy and beauty could exist, a tiny rampart against despair.

‘I don’t camp’

In June 2022, the city announced it was closing the shelter: Pandemic-related federal funding was running out, and the facility was needed for other purposes, officials said. Some residents moved to a few spots available in private shelters or city-provided hotel rooms.

Monique was among the dwindling group of people who hadn’t found somewhere else to go by the bitter end, June 30. She was circumspect about why: The people she sat with on the steps of Sullivan Arena were what social workers called “the hardest to place” because of mental health or behavioral problems. Including her.

The city’s plan was to send anyone with nowhere else to go to a public campground on the outskirts of the city. It was an unprecedented move: For decades, Anchorage — one way or another — had offered indoor shelter to the homeless. Now, people were told to live outdoors.

Monique strenuously objected to camping — in her years of homelessness, she’d managed to avoid tents on all but a few bad nights. Her congestive heart failure meant she increasingly used a walker and sometimes a wheelchair to move around.

“I don’t camp!” Monique repeated to everyone she could.


On that day, Monique and her friend Cindy waited all day for something to come through, some social worker’s miracle landing her in a proper bed for the night, if not the foreseeable future, but nothing turned up. And by afternoon, the two had reluctantly boarded a bus for the Centennial Park Campground. The two arrived at the campground, with Cindy pushing Monique, and were handed tents.

A couple of days later, a trio of black bears started scrambling through the campground, drawn by stored food. Campers were told to go to the central pavilion, where they’d be safer from bears. It was there that Monique, who was nodding off to sleep, fell and hit her head on the metal lid of an open trash can.

“Hard enough that it split open,” she said.

Her scalp was bleeding profusely. An ambulance was called but took 20 minutes to arrive. A fellow camper who was a combat veteran tended to the wound, blood soaking everything. Monique needed 44 stitches.

She ended up staying in the hospital for more than a week, in part because she risked infection from the deep wound and also because everyone agreed she couldn’t go back to the campground.

Again, Monique found herself waiting on a social work miracle. She’d been kicked out of the Brother Francis Shelter before, put on the 86′d list for yelling at a caseworker and getting in his face. Who, in that summer of suffering, was going to send a woman with a gaping head wound back to camp in the rough? Monique was sent to Brother Francis as a medical respite case.


Around the same time, a promissory note of future stability arrived: the long-awaited housing voucher. Monique could apply for an apartment and use the voucher to pay the rent. All Monique could think about was reuniting with her cat, Coco. Maybe family members would even feel comfortable visiting. But she needed to find a suitable apartment, and with her record of evictions that would be a challenge.

“Then reality hit,” Monique said. “I knew it’s not gonna happen overnight.”

Monique was inching up the staircase of leaving homelessness in Anchorage. She’d gone from a cot at Sullivan Arena to a nylon tent, her personal rock bottom, to a hospital bed to a women’s dorm bunk at Brother Francis. By now she was used to sleeping in rooms with strangers. She knew she had to keep her anger in check if she didn’t want to sink back into the even less desirable situation of being on the street.

Another good thing

In August, another good thing happened: Monique got a long-term spot at Complex Care, a newly opened shelter forged out of the former Sockeye Inn in Midtown Anchorage. It would house people who were homeless and had significant disabilities or medical issues, part of a model that prioritizes sheltering people in smaller groups, with on-site help tailored to their needs.

Complex Care is run by Catholic Social Services, an experienced shelter operator. Monique knew the manager, Jessie Talivaa, and thought highly of him. The staff had been trained in trauma-informed care, and were experts at de-escalating conflicts. Drugs and alcohol were not to be used on site.

Monique moved in during the rains of August, knowing that others were still in soggy tents at Centennial Campground. She felt a swell of good fortune.

The months at Sockeye Inn did not progress as they usually did for Monique, with an explosion and a banishment.

Part of the reason was the manager, Talivaa. He’d first met Monique when she was handcuffed to a line of other women, wearing a jail jumpsuit, waiting to be led into court for one of her assault charges, she said. He understood her past. The two had long chats about Complex Care, the rules and regulations. He noticed a change in Monique — their long, pleasant conversations were something new.


“Monique is very different from when I met her six years ago,” Talivaa said. “She’s a lot calmer.”

The time at Complex Care proved to be one of the longest stretches of stability Monique had seen in years. Eventually, she got her own room, a cocoon with soft lamp lighting and a little table to do crafts. She didn’t need to sink into her headphones as she had at Sullivan Arena to drown out the chaos outside, though she still favored hearing ocean sounds as she wheeled down the hallways or worked on her creations in her room.

It was during this time that Monique completed a court-ordered treatment program that required intensive therapy. It was her seventh time attempting treatment, and the first time she had finished.

“Knowing that I had that under my belt was a sign of things to come for me,” she said. “I could celebrate small successes. What I felt was, I was above survival mode.”

As part of the therapy program, Monique had to talk about the trauma that alcoholism had introduced to her life, about things she’d endured being homeless on the street, and about her pain and regrets.

“They say we’re only as sick as our secrets,” she said. “When I got it out, it wasn’t a part of me anymore — it was out.”

Drugs and alcohol are not allowed at Complex Care, but some residents walked down the street to gather around a utility box and pass bottles. Monique was proud to say she wasn’t part of that scene. The quiet made her feel rich.

“I might not be blinging with gold or have a brand-new car, but I feel like I’m thriving now,” Monique said one day in her room at Complex Care, wearing a bandana over the scar left by her fall in the campground.

But she still didn’t have an apartment, and the winter was turning into spring. Finding somewhere that would accept her, even with the sought-after voucher, seemed impossible. Her caseworker Kennedy Tali was working on it, but her “barriers,” as she called them, closed doors.

Complex Care

One day in May, Monique used a walker to get across the street to Leroy’s, an all-night diner where the waitress seemed to know every person’s name. Leroy’s was less than a block away but Monique had never been inside. She stuck close to home.

Outside, the city was struggling ever more obviously with homelessness: Sullivan Arena was again being drawn down to what city officials promised would be a final closure. Some residents had found spaces to live in hotel rooms converted into non-congregate shelter housing. A few lucky people had landed, like Monique had, at Complex Care, a longer-term shelter that came with social workers and meal deliveries and other support.

But in the spring of 2023, a record number of unsheltered people were dying on the streets of Anchorage. Just down the street, an unhoused man had died on the sidewalk early one April morning. Monique had glimpsed his body, covered in a sheet while waiting for her bus to church. As the city edged closer to the proposed final date for Sullivan Arena, no other low-barrier shelter plan had come to fruition. It would be another summer of unhoused people camping with no alternative shelter.

Monique thought it was absurd. Her experience had convinced her that small, specialized shelters like Complex Care were far more helpful for residents than the large mass shelter. But the city would always need a low-barrier shelter, Monique said. No matter what, homelessness was not going to disappear.

Monique felt her own life progressing. She had completed her court-ordered programs, and her criminal cases were finally resolved. The dream of her own apartment seemed to be getting closer. She reached across the vinyl booth to show pictures of her cat on her phone. Being able to have her pets would be the ultimate prize of her own apartment. Perhaps her son and granddaughter would be able to visit.

Monique said she felt like she was moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a psychological theory that she’d first encountered in jail, enrolled in a life skills class.

The hierarchy of needs posits that people require having their physiological needs — like food, shelter and water — met before they can pursue the fulfillment of higher needs like safety, belonging and community. Monique was looking all the way to the top of the needs pyramid: self-actualization, or reaching your highest potential. For her, she thought that might include working in the field of medical billing, which she’d studied, and volunteer work.

“When I leave Complex Care, I’m going to be moving into my house,” she said. “Previously it was, ‘I better not do anything to get myself kicked out of here — because, guess what, I used to get kicked out.’”

She was now thinking about what she wanted from an apartment: She didn’t want to live in her old neighborhood. There were too many dark times there. She wanted to be close to her church, which had been a constant even as her living situation had changed time and time again. She wanted to be able to prepare her own food and cook. Complex Care had given her so much, but she’d gained significant weight while there and her diabetes was becoming a bigger problem. In an apartment, she could control what she ate rather than the handout, prepackaged meals she was given at the shelter.

“I have a saying: I’m in control of the fork lifts,” she said.

She shuffled out of Leroy’s, her whole-body laughter making her walker shake.

A few days later, Sullivan Arena closed again for good. Workers handed out green and white tents to the people who were, as Monique had been, the last ones left.

A loss and a lease

Then, in mid-May, a disaster and a breakthrough:

Monique’s son died in Anchorage. He was 30. Her firstborn had been sick with a chronic illness for a few years but it still came as a shock, she said. The day Monique found out he had died, she collapsed. She felt like her legs wouldn’t work, and doctors thought she might be having a stroke. The MRIs cleared her, but she remained in the hospital for weeks. Her health, with the effects of congestive heart failure paired with diabetes, was worsening fast.

It was while she was hospitalized that she got the news: Her caseworker had found her an apartment.

Monique’s case worker, Kennedy Tali, had been by her side for 2 1/2 years. Tali, formerly homeless himself, had started working at Sullivan Arena when it was managed by Bean’s Cafe. He’d jumped to subsequent management companies so he could keep the same clients he’d grown to care for on his caseload.

When he met her, Monique had a reputation for being difficult to work with. She didn’t necessarily listen or follow advice. But over time, the two had built a trusting relationship.

Because Tali knew Monique so well, he could vouch for her progress — even though she had problems on paper, he said. It took three months to find a landlord willing to take a chance on her.

“To find this apartment that was in her price range was a real blessing,” he said.

And now it was happening. When Monique got out of the hospital, she received a set of keys to a daylight basement one-bedroom apartment in Russian Jack, with freshly painted white walls.

Moving day was June 12. Monique, Tali and two other caseworkers from the shelter showed up with her belongings in minivans. She struggled down the stairs and pulled out the keys. She opened the door. Home. A blank slate. It was strangely warm inside — Tali said he’d check with the landlord about that.

Tali has helped house dozens of people. He knew that while finding an apartment and securing a lease is a huge hurdle, the hardest part of leaving homelessness was yet to come.

He’d seen it before. People used to living in tents, mass shelters or couchsurfing finally get an apartment and just about crawl out of their skin. Suddenly being alone feels unnatural. They invite family members over, or friends from the street. Maybe they drink or relapse. They get evicted.

“A real crucial part about being housed is being able to set boundaries,” he said.

Social workers from Complex Care helped set up a bed frame and unroll a mattress. Monique could arrange her things as she wished. She looked around, making plans for where she would put her treasured craft supplies. Where the litter box for her cat would go. The pink carrying case of nail polishes she had hauled around Sullivan Arena to the campground from shelter to shelter made it to the new apartment. She sighed.

“Now I can have my peace and my joy,” she said. “It was tucked away. I never lost it.”

Monique was aware of Tali’s warning: She knew that getting an apartment was different from keeping an apartment. She’d lost them before. She thought of her son, who had died less than a month earlier. He would have been happy that she’d moved into an apartment. But he would have given her a tough-love speech too, she said.

“He would have said, ‘Now take care of this one and don’t lose it.’”

Closer to shore

Two weeks later, Monique had not buried her son. An online fundraiser to pay for the funeral had stalled, and a dispute about the money had grown.

She had been to the emergency room twice — her leg was in searing pain, and now she feared her foot was infected. She had no more furniture in her apartment than the day she moved in, and her belongings were still in piles. She’d been subsisting on sandwiches because the oven was broken. The stairs were a problem, and getting in and out of the apartment with her walker was nearly impossible. But her cat was curled under her arm, a moment she had wished for.

On a rainy afternoon, she fielded a visit from a Providence hospital nurse checking on her ability to move safely in the apartment and a phone call dealing with a doctor’s referral. Part of her wanted to go back to Complex Care, to live there again with the friendly staff and the delivered meals and the elevator, she said.

Her son loomed large in her thoughts. She had hoped he would visit her in an apartment again. She had wanted to bury him in a beautiful white suit, surrounded by red roses. There would be no open-casket funeral now.

She was not feeling like herself right now, she said, sitting in tears on her walker’s seat rest.

“Because my authentic self is pleasant and delightful!” she insisted, her voice hoarse.

Meanwhile, another Anchorage summer of camping was unfolding outside. Tents had popped up in parks and empty lots. What had been unprecedented the summer before was becoming a seasonal fact of life in Anchorage. With summer came another Sullivan Arena shelter closure and unsheltered people clustering into empty lots and greenbelts scattered through the city. Was it a permanent change to Anchorage? That remains to be seen.

That all felt like a distant reality to Monique. But as her caseworker had said, getting into the apartment was only the beginning. Keeping it would be a harder task.

But here she was, alive, sober, free — and at home.

At the shelter, she’d been given an exercise to create a “vision board.” She clipped one photo from a magazine that showed three people paddling a canoe across a lake, the figures much closer to one beach than the other.

That, Monique said, was how she felt today: She was still on the lake. But she was paddling ever closer to shore.

• • •

Editor’s note: In June 2022, Daily News reporter Michelle Theriault Boots and photographer Bill Roth met Monique Crespo at the Sullivan Arena mass homeless shelter on the day it closed for the summer. The Daily News hoped to capture what a new reality of homelessness in Anchorage — camping in a sanctioned park — would mean for unhoused people. For the next year, we kept in touch with Monique and followed her journey through in-person visits, interviews, phone calls and text messages. This story is the result of that year of reporting, and of Monique’s willingness to candidly share her life.

• • •

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.