Anchorage is planning to close its main homeless shelter at the Sullivan Arena by the end of June as part of its plan to move from its pandemic-era response into something more permanent.
But it’ll likely be months until the city opens a brand new shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage.
Until it opens, the Bronson administration says it has a plan for where the hundreds of people staying there will go, which includes new shelters coming online this month and boosting case management.
“We’re gonna offer them a whole range of options, and if they take to the street, that’s their decision,” said Anchorage Health Department Director Joe Gerace in an interview late last month. “No one’s being put on the street.”
But some in the homeless services community say the plan is inadequate and hasn’t been communicated well to people who need to know. They fear it could lead to a surge in illegal campers.
“When there’s uncertainty about what services are going to be available, individuals will try to figure out what works best for them in a way that they feel like they have some control over the situation,” said Meg Zaletel, director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, which is helping coordinate the transition.
In other words, she said many may choose to camp in the woods.
Zaletel said the Bronson administration didn’t give her a copy of the transition plan despite multiple requests. She reviewed it after the Anchorage Health Department emailed a copy to Alaska Public Media on Monday afternoon.
Managers at the Sullivan Arena say the health department didn’t share a plan with them either. They said that they’ve started to hear from clients that they’re considering moving to the streets.
“We’ve had a lot of individuals express that they will just begin to camp or stay in places that are not meant for habitation, rather than going anywhere else,” said Hannah Ferguson, assistant shelter director at the Sullivan.
She said managers at the arena weren’t told definitively that the Sullivan shelter would close at the end of June until May 27.
The same day, she said, the Anchorage Health Department told her the shelter wasn’t allowed to accept new clients beginning June 1, and the shelter would turn away clients who missed multiple check-ins or who were kicked out of the shelter for bad behavior for more than a day.
“We had never been communicated to that that was going to be a possibility,” said Ferguson.
Ferguson and shelter director Cesar Ramirez said staff for 99 Plus 1, the company contracted to operate the Sullivan, worked quickly. They posted signs informing clients about the changes and started directing clients to the arena staff who specialize in connecting them to housing agencies.
But because of the shortage of available apartments and hotel rooms in Anchorage, options are limited.
“We’re asking where they can send clients to because there’s no resources in the community, and unfortunately, we can’t give them direction,” said Ramirez.
Several clients interviewed outside of the Sullivan Arena last week said they weren’t sure what they would do.
Dale Bradley said he likes living in a larger shelter like the Sullivan where he can be close to friends. He said he lived in an apartment last year, but didn’t like the long list of rules about allowing in guests and alcohol use. He said he’ll move somewhere where there are fewer rules.
“I’ll probably live in the woods, I guess,” he said.
The city’s plan to move the hundreds of people staying at the Sullivan relies on two new shelters that have recently opened. The first is the Guest House, which will be purchased by a nonprofit group run by Anchorage First Presbytarian Church for workforce housing. There are about 140 rooms, which health department spokesperson Tyler Sachtleben said in an email can accommodate two people each for a total of up to 260 beds.
But the rooms are already full, Zaletel said, and Sachtleben acknowledged that having a roommate won’t work for all clients.
A second shelter for people with complex medical needs also opened on Monday. The former Sockeye Inn can house 83 people and is operated by the nonprofit Catholic Social Services. But CEO Robin Dempsey said it’s temporarily moving people from its Brother Francis Shelter in downtown Anchorage to do deferred maintenance for part of the June.
There are dozens of rooms available at the Aviator Hotel, but Ferguson said she was told months ago that 99 Plus 1 navigators couldn’t refer clients there any more. Sachtleben, the health department spokesperson, said it’s waiting for paperwork from 99 Plus 1 to open up funding so that they can start putting clients into hotel shelters.
For social service organizations that help clients at the Sullivan find housing, it’s challenging to move people. Catholic Social Services CEO Robin Dempsey said her organization has moved about 300 people from homelessness into more permanent housing this year. But she said the housing shortage is slowing the process.
“Finding apartments has definitely been a struggle,” said Dempsey. “It’s a day-to-day process.”
The number of people staying at the Sullivan has dropped significantly since the beginning of the month. The city’s shelter dashboard showed about 260 people living there on Tuesday, down from about 320 last week. It’s not clear how much of that is due to people moving into other housing options, camping or staying with friends.
Advocates say that for people experiencing homelessness, the uncertainty is nothing new, but it’s not ideal for homeless people or for the community. The unseasonably warm and dry June has led to a big risk of wildfire risk, for one.
Housing advocate and state house candidate Roger Branson, who spent months talking with clients at the Sullivan, said there are other ways the uncertainty could hurt the community. He said clients might do something illegal — even violent — for the sole purpose of being sent to jail.
“That’s a legitimate way for those folks to have some kind of security in their lives, and especially the ones who have been institutionalized and don’t see opportunities for themselves in the real world,” he said.
He said he hopes more people start paying attention to what is happening at the Sullivan shelter before it comes to that.
Correction: This story previously misstated who will own the Guest House. It will purchased by Anchorage First Presbyterian Church, LLC with funding from the city with a closing date expected in August. It is currently being used for work force housing on an interim use agreement.