As Anchorage heads into winter, officials worry about homeless shelter capacity

A purple fold-out sign with the words "Full Capacity". Behind it, a man in a tan jacket descends a ramp
The Emergency Mass Shelter at the Sullivan Arena has been running at or near its capacity for the past weeks, and shelter managers worry they’ll have to turn people away if the pressure continues. Photo taken on Sept. 22, 2020. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage officials say they’re worried that some people experiencing homelessness won’t have adequate shelter as temperatures drop. 

The city’s largest shelter at the Sullivan Arena has been at capacity for months. From August to September, outreach workers identified 285 people living on the streets. 

Those people don’t really have any options, said Jasmine Boyle, director of the Coalition to End Homelessness.

“Until we have a way to bring the almost 300 folks inside, and until we have enough of a relationship with them, to help the folks that are really reluctant to come into mass shelter to come inside, we have to do something in the interim to keep people alive and safe,” Boyle told Anchorage Assembly members at a meeting Wednesday.

Anchorage City Manager Bill Falsey said that to free up space at the Sullivan, officials are working to move more guests to hotels and apartments around town. 

“We are going to figure out how to survive this winter without putting anybody out on the streets to the best that we can make that happen,” he said. “And that has meant a lot of stopgap measures.”

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The city is aiming to keep the Sullivan at 8% below capacity by moving high-risk people into vacant hotel rooms, said Nancy Burke, the city’s homelessness coordinator. It has already moved 70 people into hotel rooms over the past few weeks. Still, the shelter has operated at capacity. 

“We know that this is a very stressful, extremely challenging situation for our partners,” she said, referring to Bean’s Cafe, which has the contract to operate the Sullivan. 

The city and shelter operators have moved dozens of people out of the shelter into hotel rooms or apartments, prioritizing people based on their risk of severe symptoms of COVID-19. But estimates from the Anchorage Health Department show that about 40% of the Sullivan population is still at high risk. Falsey said the city is racing to find more rooms, and beefing up its rapid rehousing program, but it doesn’t know what the effect of the virus will be. 

“In the COVID world where there may be additional pressures on the job system, because more people have fallen into homelessness, it is an unknown,” he said. “And we are unfortunately in the place of having to feel it out in real-time, and see what the numbers look like.”

SEE ALSO: As Anchorage heads into winter, officials worry about homeless shelter capacity

National estimates suggest that homelessness could rise up to 45% because of economic pressure caused by the coronavirus. But city officials and non-profits in Anchorage are hoping to avert that sort of calamity by beefing up rapid rehousing and other support programs.  

Earlier this summer, the Anchorage Assembly authorized the purchase of several properties to open up more shelter space, but those properties are weeks or months away from being used. Without enough capacity, Falsey said, the city both morally and legally can’t pursue homeless camp abatement.

Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at

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