A routine Anchorage Assembly work session on the city’s shelter operations was thrown into disarray on Thursday when news surfaced that a key player in Mayor Dave Bronson’s response to homelessness had resigned.
John Morris, an anesthesiologist who has served as the city’s homeless coordinator since July, confirmed in a text message to Alaska Public Media Thursday afternoon that he had resigned on Monday. He declined to comment any further and would not say why he quit.
Morris was scheduled to give an update at Thursday’s work session on the Sullivan Arena, the city’s main homeless shelter. The meeting was held by videoconference. About 15 minutes in, Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance directed a question to Morris. He did not answer.
Eagle River/Chugiak Assembly member Jamie Allard interjected to say that Morris had resigned.
The news seemed to take administration officials by surprise, including Bronson’s chief of staff Sami Graham and the city’s acting health director Joe Gerace.
“I emailed Dr. Morris this morning,” said Gerace at the meeting. “I was not aware that that had occurred. So I’m shocked to hear that.”
Morris is the latest member of Bronson’s administration involved with homelessness to leave, less than four months into Bronson’s tenure as mayor.
Bronson’s office announced in a statement later Thursday afternoon that it had accepted Morris’s resignation. Bronson thanked him for his work and said his administration will work with the Assembly on homelessness issues.
“The focus and mission remains the same in helping our city’s most vulnerable get the compassionate care and resources they need,” said the statement from Bronson.
Morris’s departure comes amid concern and questions from Assembly members and homelessness experts about conditions at the Sullivan shelter, which recently underwent a management change.
Jasmine Boyle, director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, told Assembly members during Thursday’s work session that she’s heard an increasing number of complaints about conditions at the Sullivan, including issues with rule changes, violence and cleanliness.
Gerace acknowledged that there had been recent problems at the Sullivan because of lax behavioral policies. He said security guards had been assaulted with a knife last week.
“Bean’s had a very strong behavioral policy. I will admit that the current vendor hasn’t,” he said. “We can only ask very strongly through a contract compliance tool that they use the same rules that Bean’s did, because that was what the people were used to.”
Gerace said the administration is working to ensure that 99 Plus 1 is complying with its contract. 99 Plus 1 is the private company that took over operations of the Sullivan shelter from Bean’s Cafe in September. Its contract ends on Sunday, but it can be extended for up to six months.
Assembly members on Thursday also had questions about the status of the city moving out of the Sullivan Arena with Morris and others leaving their jobs.
Morris was part of a six-member group of administration representatives and Assembly members working on a plan to transition out of the Sullivan. Larry Baker is the only remaining member of the group representing Bronson’s administration. Craig Campbell, a senior advisor, announced he was leaving last week.
“With two-thirds of that team gone, who is spearheading implementation of the facilitated process so that we can move out of the Sullivan as soon as possible?” Assembly member Forrest Dunbar asked Gerace during the meeting.
“I don’t know who’s going to sit in the chair,” said Gerace. “But it’s definitely something we need to look at.”
Morris was a proponent of building a large temporary shelter in East Anchorage that couldn’t win Assembly approval in part because of unclear costs and concerns about earthquakes and snow load. A smaller version of that shelter is in the most recent proposal by the city’s working group, along with several other smaller shelter sites.
Other city staff that have recently left their jobs include Bob Doehl, director of development services who was integral in setting up the Sullivan shelter last March. He announced he will resign in November.
Shawn Hays, the mass care lead who oversaw operations at the Sullivan and other non-congregate shelters, was fired last week. Hays said she is “considering options” related to her dismissal. She previously told Alaska Public Media that she had not been told of any performance issues before she was fired.
Correction: This story previously misspelled the name of Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance.