Emotions high as Anchorage’s largest homeless shelter shuts down after more than 2 years 

W woman writes in a notepad on a plastic tote
Rose George writes a thank you note on Thursday to Sullivan Arena shelter staff. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Rose George stood on the steps of the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage on Thursday morning, scribbling on a notepad resting on three plastic totes filled with her belongings.

She said she was writing a thank you note to shelter staff at the Sullivan — which has served as the state’s largest homeless shelter for more than two years. She’s lived there for the past few months.

On Thursday, she and dozens of others sleeping at the Sullivan had to move out. The city closed the shelter by the end of the day, part of its plan to transition toward a more permanent shelter system. 

The day was marked by high emotions for the people leaving. They had to figure out where to go next and, for some, the only option was camping outside. Controversy and questions also swirled around the shelter closure, as some Assembly members and homeless advocates accused the city of poor planning and poor communication.

For George, the day was bittersweet. 

“It’s a lot harder than I expected it to be,” she said. “There’s a lot of great staff and a lot of good people I met here. A lot of memories and things that I learned that I’m going to take with me.”

From the Sullivan, she planned to take a taxi cab to a hotel that the city is using to house people who are homeless. She said she’s excited for her own place, even though she’s never seen the room. She wondered if she’d have her own kitchen. 

Many others leaving the Sullivan on Thursday did not have an indoor place to go and many said they’ll be forced to camp.    

For Sean Shields, the closure of the Sullivan shelter felt like a betrayal. 

“They promised all these people housing or some way to get housing and not to be bussed out of sight of people so nobody can see them,” he said. “That’s not right.”

The city has been winding down operations at the Sullivan over the past several weeks. The shelter once slept more than 500 people each night, after it was set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. By Thursday, just 64 people stayed there, officials said. 

pople stand in line by a bus
Sullivan guests wait for a bus to take them to the Centennial Campground. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The city said it had to close the shelter because federal funding would start declining — down to 90% reimbursement from 100% — at the start of July. The health department estimated it had spent $1 million on operations each month. 

But homeless advocates said the city’s plan to phase out the shelter was flawed because there weren’t enough free beds at hotels and shelters in the city, forcing many people to sleep outside. 

Officials with Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, however, said the failure to house all Sullivan guests was because outreach workers were not being proactive. But they also acknowledged the open shelter beds in the city have requirements — like sobriety — that some people leaving the Sullivan don’t meet.

Bronson officials abruptly repurposed the Centennial Campground in East Anchorage last week to give people who are homeless a legal place to stay outside and, they said, to reduce the risk of wildfires. 

The city ran buses from the Sullivan shelter to the campground this week.

Edna Penn of Ambler was among those leaving the Sullivan on Thursday who planned to camp, but not at the Centennial Campground. There were free beds in the city for people admitted into treatment for alcoholism, but Penn said she likes drinking to cope with trauma and wasn’t ready to stop.

“Everybody told us to sober up but we’d rather stay outside and drink and just be out here,” she said. “Me and my boyfriend will stay in a tent on the other side of the trees with my friend.”

Jesse Owen also saw camping as his only option. He planned to head to Centennial.

He was one of several people staying at the Sullivan who said they weren’t able to work because of medical conditions — in his case a workplace injury to his arm. On his final morning at the Sullivan shelter, he ate cereal and fresh strawberries from a prepackaged container in the parking lot. He said he’s been diligent about reaching out to social service workers to get on lists for housing, but it hasn’t worked. 

“I’ve been reaching out every day to the people that were supposed to be able to help me,” he said. “It took me till the last minute before I’d signed the paperwork that even allowed these people to talk to each other.”

Nearby sitting on a parking lot curb, BillyJens Hopson of Utqiaġvik, said the city’s tight housing market makes finding an apartment hard even with a part-time job as a mover that pays $25 an hour.

“We did try other places like Craigslist for apartments, AirBnB, but they’re just a little bit more expensive, because the summer rates are crazy,” he said. 

Hopson was also headed to the Centennial Campground. He sat on a curb behind the Sullivan Arena around 9 a.m. Thursday with his bags stacked nearby, waiting for a white Anchorage Health Department bus to take him there.

To people smile into the camera
Wasilla Daniel (right) and BillyJens Hopson wait for a bus to take them to the Sullivan Arena. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Tucked in thick spruce trees beside the Glenn Highway, the city-owned campground usually charges $25 a night to pitch a tent. Most summers, it’s used by Alaskans or visitors to camp or stay in RVs.

Last week, the city waived the fees for homeless campers. Since then, the city has moved more than 70 people there from the Sullivan Arena.

Workers put up tents in a green field
Anchorage Health Department workers help set up a tent for a camper at the Centennial Park campgrounds. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

On Thursday, campground staff and volunteers were setting up tents for the latest groups of new arrivals. By about noon, they said, the campground was above capacity, so some tents were staked in a common area. 

The influx of people posed its own set of challenges, including attracting bears. 

“Oh, they’re everywhere,” said David Neuner, who set up his tent at Centennial last week. 

David Neuner sits near his tent at the Centennial Park Campgrounds in Anchorage. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

The bears had reportedly even entered a camper’s tent. Staff with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department promised to hand out bear-proof storage containers. Campground staff used bullhorns to try to scare bears away, and some campers tried to keep their food out of reach by using rope pulleys to hang it in bags in trees.

The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness said in a news release on Thursday that the city had created safety risks by quickly funneling dozens of people to the campground.

“There are reports that people are showing up to the campground without tents, blankets, or options for basic shelter required for sleeping outside,” the statement said. 

They pinned the blame on poor communication between the mayor’s office, the coalition and other providers involved in homelessness and asked for more staff and services at the site. 

Bags hanging from trees
As a precaution for bears in the area, some campers at the Centennial Park campground suspended some of their belongings in trees. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Still, some campers at Centennial said being there was comfortable. The campground has quiet hours and regular security patrols so they don’t have to worry about leaving their things. There’s also trash service, bathrooms and showers.

“I hadn’t taken a shower in like six, seven days before I got in here and it was so amazing just having a shower,” said James Keele, who moved to the campground from an illegal camping site near Valley of the Moon. 

Two men sit by a bench
Jimmie Hartley (left), James Keele and Keele’s dog Atticus near Hartley’s tent at the Centennial Park campground. Keele says with bears wandering the campground, Atticus has been awake all night. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Others at the campground weren’t happy. They said they didn’t want to camp. Some had little experience doing it, including Shields who was readying to leave the Sullivan early Thursday.

“I’m from Georgia,” he said. “I’ve been learning how to camp, but I can just imagine, you know, what happens when it rains? What happens when the first person gets mauled?”

Margaret Chiklak sat at a picnic bench at a camp spot Thursday afternoon with her walker nearby. She said her back and leg problems means getting to a grocery store or bus can be challenging. Not to mention staying in a tent. It’s hard for her to get up in the morning — she’s only sleeping on a camping pad. 

“Being able to get up and down from the tent is a struggle,” she said. “I cry every day. I can’t move around a lot like a normal person can.”

A woman in a black shirt at a red bench
Margaret Chiklak at her campsite at the Centennial Park campground. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

She said she has to rely on her fiancé to lift her up each morning, and rely on volunteers to bring her food. She doesn’t like depending on others, but, without an apartment, she said it’s her best option in Anchorage right now.

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Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@gmail.com.

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