Anchorage is trying something different this year with emergency winter shelter. Will it be enough?

For the first time in recent years, Anchorage’s emergency winter sheltering plan doesn’t yet include a warming area, where residents can seek refuge from extreme cold, and which can be especially critical to those experiencing homelessness and living outdoors.

Also unlike in past years, so far there have been limited options for homeless people to walk up and easily find services or a bed.

Those changes have led to confusion and could present challenges this winter, city officials and homeless service providers say, even as many of them remain optimistic about other aspects of the city’s emergency winter shelter plan.

City officials are pondering what to do next as a call-in registration list for winter shelter totaled 1,131 people by Thursday, more than double the 524 shelter beds in the plan.

“We’re going to need a warming area,” said Shawn Hays, CEO of Henning Inc., the nonprofit contracted by the city to staff emergency shelters.

Those include the 150-bed mass shelter, which opened Tuesday in a former administrative building of Solid Waste Services in Midtown. There are another 374 hotel room shelter beds between the Alex Hotel in Spenard and the Aviator Hotel downtown.

The city last November had around 450 beds between the Sullivan Arena congregate shelter and the Alex and Aviator Hotels.


Then, back-to-back snowstorms in December saw homeless residents flocking to Sullivan Arena. They sought refuge inside a crowded warming area separate from the largely full 200-bed shelter on the arena’s floor. The city then increased the number of Sullivan Arena shelter beds to 360.

Several city officials have said the city needs more winter shelter beds, possibly also a warming area. But there are roadblocks, including limited funding and finding realistic locations.

It’s not yet clear what the city will do — or where many homeless residents can go when temperatures plunge and bad weather threatens survival.

[As Anchorage officials grapple with a winter shelter bed gap, Bronson resurrects dispute over mass shelter proposal]

Slow to fill

Despite the long list, the city’s 150-bed mass shelter in Midtown has so far been slow to fill. By Thursday afternoon, just 28 people were staying there, though more were on their way, said Rob Seay, deputy director with Henning Inc.

The Sullivan didn’t fill up until mid- to late November, Seay said. But, by December, “we had 200 people on the floor and up to 150 in the warming area waiting for the city to raise capacity,” Seay said.

The slow start isn’t surprising to Seay, who attributes it to a recent spate of relatively mild and dry weather, he said.

“People are saying it’s too nice and warm out right now or they want into the hotels,” said Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless coordinator.

Henning also ran the city’s shelters last year, including the former mass shelter in Sullivan Arena. That experience has its leaders worried about what will happen when snow and ice drive people currently living outside to seek shelter.

“We need a plan. A quick plan, in the event that we fill up fast and we have people that are still in need of shelter,” Hays said.

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Catholic Social Services has been coordinating with Henning to get people from its 3rd Avenue Resource and Navigation Center near downtown over to the Midtown shelter.

The call-in, call-back referral list has been confusing and inaccessible for people living outside, who often don’t have reliable phone access, said David Rittenberg, senior director of adult homeless services with CSS.

Rittenberg said he thinks that confusion, more than the weather, is behind the slow trickle of people into the Midtown shelter.

Also, people are adding their names to the list because they know they might need shelter this winter. It’s not necessarily how many beds are needed each night, he said.

“It’s not people that are coming to a location to access shelter right now. It’s sort of like everybody that raised their hand that said they think that they might need shelter sometime this winter,” he said.

Some on the city’s waitlist aren’t unsheltered, and are staying with friends or family, couch surfing or in a privately run shelter. But the majority say they’re living on the streets or in camps around the city.


It’s critical that people have low-barrier, walk-up access to shelter and services, Rittenberg said. Unlike past years, that hasn’t been the case so far this year — at least, it hasn’t been clear.

Hays on Thursday said that right now, people can walk into the shelter in the former Solid Waste Services building and get a bed.

While Brother Francis is technically a walk-in shelter, it is almost always full.

Anchorage emergency winter shelter plans have changed dramatically in recent years. Pre-pandemic, people showed up at Brother Francis to get in line for a bed each evening, either in the shelter or an adjacent overflow shelter in the former Bean’s Cafe building, which varied yearly between 100 to 160 people, Rittenberg said.

The city also sometimes opened warming areas during extreme cold, such as in the transit center downtown, Assembly member Felix Rivera said during a recent interview. But still, back then, there wasn’t enough shelter for everyone living outside.

“The need was ignored. And folks camped out deep in the woods in the winter. And that was that. That was what people did. That’s what they were used to doing,” he said. It was out of sight, out of mind, he said.

Then in 2020, pandemic emergency health measures upended Anchorage’s shelter system.

Sullivan Arena served as the main walk-up entry point for shelter access for much of the last three years, until the city permanently closed it as a shelter this spring. City officials and social service providers agree that the arena was far from a good solution.


But since then, encampments have sprawled around the city and homeless residents haven’t known what to expect.

Rittenberg said the city needs more small shelters and programs, providing people with dignity and choice — and a system that’s more permanent and predictable.

Plans to create warming area uncertain

Rittenberg pointed to the skyrocketing number of outdoor deaths of people believed to be homeless in Anchorage this year.

By mid-October, 43 people had died, nearly double the total deaths in 2022.

“I’m definitely concerned about this winter,” Rittenberg said.

The city’s previous warming areas have been set up in heated tents outside Sullivan Arena where people weren’t allowed to sleep, and last year, in an area inside the arena. There, people slept on chairs, on pieces of cardboard and directly on the concrete floor. Meals typically weren’t provided.

[From 2022: Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena shelter is full. As temperatures plunge, homeless seek refuge in a crowded warming area.]

“I think that if we’re going to go that route, we should simply set up small-scale shelters. Like, why would you not provide food? Why would you not let them lay down and sleep? And so I never quite understood the rationale,” Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said when asked about the lack of a warming area during an interview this week.

However, the areas did serve as a life-saving measure for vulnerable people otherwise stuck outside, and as a place to connect with services or get on a waitlist for a shelter bed. They were also a place where people who had been kicked out of the shelter could go to stay warm, which happened fairly frequently.

“I have multiple times asked the administration what their plan is for warming, if they have a plan for warming. And they’ve told me consistently that they don’t have a plan for warming,” Rivera said.

If the city needs more shelter or a warming facility, Rivera said he expects the Anchorage Health Department to explore the options and bring them to the Assembly.

Lack of funding is going to be the biggest issue when it comes to expanding winter shelters this season, Johnson, Anchorage’s homeless coordinator, has said.


During an interview Wednesday, Mayor Dave Bronson said the city doesn’t yet have plans for additional shelter or warming areas. And some Anchorage Assembly members have recently said the city needs to wait until it sees how many people are consistently using the shelters before taking action.

“At the behest of the Assembly, essentially, we’re in kind of a ‘wait and see’ mode,” Bronson said. “But it’s — it’s going to be a mess, I think. But we’re going to keep working. Our job — we have a moral imperative to keep people from freezing to death. And you do that by keeping them warm inside. And we’re gonna figure it out.”

Bronson has continued to advocate for his mass shelter vision: a now-dead project to construct a 500- or 1,000-bed shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage, which has seen total cost estimates of up to $25 million and $30 million for construction and a year of operations.

Asked whether his administration is examining additional sites it could use for warming or shelter this winter, Bronson said the city owns dozens of buildings — but that “you just can’t go into a neighborhood and say we’re going to take that public building, that municipal building and put 150 or 200 very challenged people there. It’s public safety. We don’t want to do that,” he said.

This year, it “just happened to work out” with the Solid Waste Services building, Bronson said, adding, “I think we got real lucky.”

“I don’t come up with these plans. I just set policy. And the policy is real simple: Get people into shelters, so they don’t die,” Bronson said. “And then Alexis (Johnson) and her team, the other departments, they come together and then we talk about a plan going forward.”


Rivera, who chairs the Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee, said the health department’s plan is a good plan to start with. It uses smaller sites in different neighborhoods and relies largely on hotel rooms, where people can better stabilize than in mass shelter, he said.

Rittenberg with CSS said he’s encouraged by the city’s move to using multiple smaller shelters.

“I think we should build on that,” Rittenberg said.

Daily News reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed to this story.

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Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at