Anchorage’s largest homeless shelter will close Thursday after 2 years. Here’s what to know.

A large tan building with a stairwell in the front
The Sullivan Arena shelter has housed more than 300 people for most of the past two years. It’s set to close on June 30. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage’s pandemic mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena will close on Thursday after two years of housing hundreds of people each night. 

The closure marks a major moment in the city’s response to COVID-19 and homelessness.

Here’s some of what we know about how — and why — the city is closing down the shelter. 

Why is the city closing down the Sullivan Arena shelter now? 

The main reason, city officials say, is that Friday, July 1, is the day the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, will reduce how much of the costs it covers for mass shelters like the Sullivan. Beginning on July 1, FEMA’s reimbursement will drop from 100% to 90%, according to a FEMA advisory from March. 

The city estimates it has been spending about $1 million per month on the Sullivan shelter since it opened in March 2020. So far, it has only been reimbursed about $3.9 million for costs before Sept. 15, 2020, according to Anchorage Health Department spokesperson Tyler Sachtleben, but it’s submitting for reimbursements on the other costs. 

How many people are saying at the Sullivan?

The number of people staying at the Sullivan shelter each night has gone down from more than 300 a few months ago to 111 on Wednesday as people have been placed in permanent housing options or started camping outdoors. 

The city expects between 50 and 75 people will be moved out of the Sullivan on Thursday, according to Sachtleben, the city health department spokesperson.  

Some say the number could be higher.

“You will see a higher number tomorrow being unsheltered than we predicted here originally,” said Terria Ware, systems improvement coordinator with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

Where will people staying at the Sullivan go?

Nobody really knows.

Some might move into other shelters or permanent housing. Some may move in with friends. Others may go to the Centennial Campground in East Anchorage. In a controversial, last-minute move, Bronson’s administration, temporarily repurposed the campground as a place for homeless people to legally camp for free at least for the next few weeks.

Many advocates fear that there could be dozens who are forced to camp outdoors. 

Ware said the problem is that there are no shelter beds that people can move to from the Sullivan. 

The administration has partially disputed that claim. 

At an Assembly committee meeting on Wednesday, City Manager Amy Demboski said that beds were not the issue. Demboski said Anchorage Health Department case managers have contacted all of the clients currently staying at the Sullivan and that many of them reported not hearing back from social workers after they signed up on a housing list. 

“It’s very clear from our impromptu case management efforts, that there’s not a lack of beds, there’s a lack of proactive case management,” she said. 

Bronson Chief of Staff Alexis Johnson said the issue is that the shelters with available beds have requirements to get in. 

“Unfortunately they are high-barrier, they do have some requirements, such as being sober when entering the facility, not bringing any kind of paraphernalia onto the campus,” she said. 

Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia described it as “pretty disingenuous” for the administration to say there’s available beds “when they know they are high-barrier beds and the majority of people that are looking for beds right now won’t be able to access those.”

What will the closure of the Sullivan be like? 

The city has given few details about how and when people will have to leave the building on Thursday. In an email, Sachtleben said the police department, health department, parks and rec, and the Sullivan operator, 99 Plus 1, will help with the closure. A report said the administration is working to make the transition “as humanely as possible.”

“AHD staff have been working nearly 24/7 to offer remaining clients as many options as possible to ease the transition,” Sachtleben wrote in an email. “Providing emergency case management for medically fragile clients to ensure they find housing, supplying transportation via a growing fleet of vans and buses, and expediting transfers to locations like the Aviator, Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, Brother Francis Shelter, and other locations around Anchorage are just some of the ways we’re filling gaps in the case management system.”

The health department also said the city is working to move people who want to camp to the Centennial Campground. Already this week, people leaving the Sullivan on Tuesday were bused to Centennial and given tents, according to the Anchorage Daily News. 

RELATED: Despite community pushback, some say authorized homeless campground in Anchorage is needed

A wagon with a painted cardboard sign that says "Lost $ everything need cash" and two tents in the background
Tents at Centennial Campground on June 27, 2022 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Some worry that the shelter closure on Thursday might not be orderly. Owen Hutchinson, a spokesperson for the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, said his organization has requested that if the city sends police officers to the Sullivan, they be trained in dealing with mental health crises. 

“Essentially, we are removing people from the place where some have stayed for up to two years. This is a traumatic moment, a moment that could be met with resistance,” he said. 

When will a new shelter be built?

As part of a compromise plan, the Assembly and Bronson administration agreed to build a large shelter with up to 150 beds in East Anchorage on the corner of Tudor and Elmore. 

The shelter is being built by a company that makes prefabricated, tent-like structures in Utah. 

The tent is scheduled to be put up sometime in the fall, though the city hasn’t given a specific date. It will include amenities like showers, laundry and electricity. It will also have a “navigation center” to connect people with things like housing, job programs and medical care.

An aerial view of a parking lot next to some woods.
The area where the city plans to build a 29,000 square foot navigation center for homeless adults. Officials say the shelter, which will sit on the parking lot on the far (west) end of the Anchorage Police Department impound lot next to the old APD headquarters on Tudor and Elmore roads. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

What happens until the new shelter goes up?

Without new shelter options, dozens of people could be forced to camp on the streets overnight. Demboski, the city manager, said at Wednesday’s housing committee meeting that new options, like a 62-bed treatment center run by the Salvation Army, will open soon, and a new, privately-run shelter will open next year. 

Housing providers say that more people on the streets threatens the progress they have made over the past few months in finding housing for people. That’s because it’s difficult for outreach workers to find homeless people when they are camping, even if housing opens up that they qualify for. 

“It’s really about matching people to the right type of housing and it’s very difficult to do that with people who are not in a single location,” said Hutchinson with the coalition.

He said providing food, water, and medical care will also be challenging with more people camping outdoors.

What happens to the Sullivan Arena when the shelter closes?

City officials and Assembly members say they hope to return the Sullivan to its original use as a sports arena and entertainment venue.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.