As temperatures drop, demand grows at the overloaded Anchorage mass shelter


A long cold snap that has gripped Anchorage for weeks is pushing the city’s emergency shelters for homeless people to the limit.

As of Tuesday evening, 505 people slept inside the mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena near downtown Anchorage, according to city data. This is 105 people more than the official capacity of the refuge.

An additional heated tent, installed in the parking lot, was set up last week. The weather in Anchorage has been unusually cold this month, remaining single digits or falling below zero for much of November, according to the National Weather Service.

The Anchorage Department of Health said the operators of the shelter, a new for-profit company called 99 Plus One, had not turned people down.

“We were able to accommodate all of the guests at the Sullivan and will continue to do so,” said Robert McNeily, spokesperson for the department.

While the Sullivan is overcapacity, the emergency shelter system “works,” said Owen Hutchinson, spokesperson for the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “It’s an emergency shelter. It is not a great place to receive long term service or a place to stay for the long term.

The shelter operators “responded to the cold snap as best they could,” Hutchinson said.

On Wednesday morning, a Daily News reporter and photographer unexpectedly entered the Sullivan Arena to observe conditions in the public shelter. Journalists followed standard registration procedures and were allowed entry.

A grid of camp beds covered the ground floor. On the mezzanine level, dozens of people slept on thin blue mats. A few rest directly on the concrete. A man used a garbage bag as a pillow. Personal effects and garbage, including food and drink, littered the narrow hallways.

Employees of 99 Plus One were visible, wearing blue vests marked with their names and titles. The contractor is required to maintain a client to staff ratio of 30 to 1. There was a line for portable bathrooms outside. The interior bathrooms appeared to be fenced. A few people lined up for microwaved meals delivered by Bean’s Cafe, the nonprofit that ran the shelter until September and still delivers meals.

While employees could be seen working to fill soap stations and mop floors, it seemed difficult to keep up with the growing mass of thrown items, unfinished meals, and other trash.

A list of rules was posted on the wall, with penalties for non-compliance: sexual assault and sex trafficking, drug trafficking, arson or possession of a gun would result in immediate discharge and a call to the police, according to the panel. “Level II” offenses such as possession of a weapon, physical assault, drug use inside the shelter, theft, threats or disrespect to staff and “behavior affecting the safety of others ”could result in eviction for shorter periods, from two days to two hours.

The health department did not respond to a question about how many people were excluded from the Sullivan Arena.

“There is a policy under review today regarding those who are kicked out of the Sullivan Arena and it is divided into three levels regarding the seriousness of the situation and with what is in accordance with the criminal law in force in the Municipality of Sullivan. ‘Anchorage,’ wrote McNeily, the Department of Health spokesperson, in an email. “A guest or client may be removed if violations of the code of conduct and / or infractions are committed. “

Several people lined up outside an area marked “The Hub” to speak to the case managers. Starting next week, sailors from Bean’s Cafe will be able to visit the refuge to work with customers, Executive Director Lisa Sauder said.

A chain link fence had been erected in the parking lot, cutting off access to the parking lot at the Ben Boeke Rink and a hallway leading to the Chester Creek Trail.

With days of single-digit temperatures and dropping below zero, the heated tent opened up as a place with no “no curfew” where people could come to rest from the weather. People who have been kicked out of the shelter or don’t want to be in the building can also warm up there, according to McNeily.

Staff from the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness visited the heated tents on November 20 to take air and ground temperature readings, said Owen Hutchinson, spokesperson for the group.

“The tent was hot,” he said. “The ground was dry and warm.

The latest outdoor death, defined by the Anchorage Police Department as a person found dead outside with no fixed address, occurred on November 16, when police found a 55-year-old man dead in a tent in a Muldoon area backyard. Police said the death was not suspicious.

Sullivan Arena has been the city’s primary shelter for homeless people in Anchorage since the pandemic began in March 2020. In mid-September, the city terminated its contract with Bean’s Cafe to manage the shelter. A new for-profit company called 99 Plus One took over.

The transition has been chaotic, with clients at the shelter reporting a lack of water and cots.

For the original contract, which lasted until Oct. 31, the city paid $ 371,883. The cost depends on the number of clients the shelter serves. The city did not respond to a question asking how much 99 Plus One is paid monthly now, based on the shelter’s current occupancy.

In October, the Daily News reported the story of a Tennessee woman who said she went to pick up her father from the shelter, where he had been residing for over a month, and found him on the verge of to die.

The city called the man’s treatment unacceptable and said it had pushed 99 Plus One to make immediate changes, such as “continuous foot patrols” and requiring employees to wear uniforms. .

“What happened to this customer shouldn’t happen to anyone,” a city spokesperson said.

On the same day the story was published, the administration fired Shawn Hays, the head of the mass-care branch responsible for overseeing the shelter. Later, the original on-site manager of 99 Plus One, Zach Zears, was fired.

Then John Morris, the city’s homeless coordinator, resigned on October 28. He has not publicly explained why he resigned just five months after taking office.

“I regret that I failed to convince you to take what I believe is the right path,” Morris wrote in his letter of resignation to the mayor.

“He resigned for personal reasons,” said city spokesman Corey Allen Young.

The city has not appointed a new homeless coordinator.

At the end of October, Bean’s Cafe was in talks with the city to take over management of the shelter, said Lisa Sauder, the executive director. But that didn’t happen: the city instead extended 99 Plus One’s contract until the end of the year. In November, 99 Plus One hired Shawn Hays – the person fired in October from his municipal role overseeing the shelter – to be the on-site manager of Sullivan Arena. The city division that oversees the homelessness response has seen other recent staff changes.

According to the city, a negotiation process between Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration and the Anchorage Assembly to develop a long-term plan to tackle homelessness has been successful, and that planning is moving forward. The proposal involves the construction of several small shelters. But it’s far.

For the foreseeable future, Sullivan Arena will remain the primary place Anchorage residents seek shelter from the cold. According to McNeily, around 40 people arrive each day.