Anchorage to house hundreds of homeless in unused ice rinks

Bean’s Cafe employee Ruth Free lays out mats on a Ben Boeke ice rink ahead of the municipality shifting individuals to the new site (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Each sleeping mat dropped on the cement floor of the empty ice hockey rink lands with a slap.

On the ground is a vast grid of cement squares lined in chalk, outlining where people will sleep once they are relocated to an under-utilized sports complex to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus among the city’s homeless population, which is especially suspeptable to viral transmission.

Each of the squares is 6 feet apart, the distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to mitigate spread of the disease.

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Anchorage is rushing to open a new emergency shelter to try and curb the spread of the coronavirus among the homeless. Starting over the weekend, individuals were being moved away from facilities downtown and into new accommodations officials believe will better protect public health.

“Today, most of them are sleeping shoulder to shoulder,” said Robin Ward, director of the municipality’s real estate department, referring to people in public shelters.

The municipality and its partners in the non-profit sector are scrambling to find a better way to keep people safe.

“Most people can isolate and quarantine themselves at home,” Ward said. “This is the group of citizens in Anchorage that doesn’t have a home. So we’re going to create that for them here.”

The sports complex is essentially two buildings: the Sullivan Arena and Ben Boeke Ice Rink at the south end of Fairview, bumping up against the Seward Highway and Cambell Creek Trail.

The Ben Boeke Ice Arena and Sullivan Arena are a large complex between the Seward Highway, Fairview, and Cambell Creek (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

The new shelter plan anticipates immediately accommodating 280 people when it opens. But that could ramp up to 480 as service-providers hire and train more staff. The newly signed agreement between the city other partners will pay for 24-hour staffing at the facility, as well as private security contractors to screen bags for alcohol, drugs, and weapons — all of which are prohibited. Each person admitted gets a medium sized container to store his or her belongings, and will use the same mat from night to night. Portable toilets, hand-washing stations, and showers are being brought in to help people stay clean.

According to Ward, the municipality is running health screenings to check for symptoms of COVID-19.

“There will be medical screening here. If someone does test positive, we will immediately call the Emergency Operation Center, and they will take care of anyone that does tests positive,” Ward said.

“We’re going to be encouraging all of our clients and folks that are using the facility to stay here,” said Lisa Sauder, who is in charge of Bean’s Cafe, which runs an emergency shelter and soup kitchen in Anchorage.

For its part, the organization will keep preparing food at its downtown kitchen that will be brought to the sports complex, and they’ll work with partner organizations to offer additional services, too.

Beans Cafe’s workers unload sleeping pads to distribute in the Ben Boeke Ice Arena (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

“We’re providing three meals a day, they’ll have access to Internet, we’re working with the Coalition to End Homelessness to try to connect them with other service providers,” Sauder said. “Our goal is to try to get people out of the system. If they have other options and places they can be, let’s use every diversionary tactic we can.”

The new setup isn’t meant to shelter every homeless person in the city. It’s only for adults. It’s a low barrier shelter, which means people won’t be turned away if they’re intoxicated, provided they are not a risk to themselves or others. Families and people fleeing domestic violence will remain in existing shelters elsewhere in the city. The Brother Francis Shelter downtown will remain open, but at a significantly reduced capacity to serve specific individuals with health challenges.

The municipality, state, country, and world, are in uncharted territory responding to the pandemic. The city’s efforts are being assembled in real time.

“We’re building the plane as we fly it,” Ward said.

“Literally, the contract was finalized yesterday. So from the Bean’s Cafe side and municipality side, this is an incredibly large effort to stand up a shelter of this size, this quickly,” she said Friday.

The cost of all this has yet to be determined.

According to Ward, factoring in all the expenses for food, security, and sanitary supplies, the city will be spending roughly $75 a day per person. At that amount, should the new facility hit its maximum capacity it would cost $1,080,000 a month. As its currently written, the contract lasts four months, though could be terminated earlier.

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Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska. @ZachHughesAK About Zachariah