‘It’s a lot’: Homeless residents at Anchorage campground get ready to move out following days of uncertainty

On the trees in the foreground are notices of camp closure and bear warnings. To the right of the trees is a red tent under a camouflage covering.
Notices of campsite closure have been posted around the Centennial Campground in Anchorage for two weeks. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

More than 200 homeless residents must leave Anchorage’s Centennial Campground on Saturday. City officials are closing the area for the winter. And they now say they’ll transport campers back to the Sullivan Arena — the site of a two-year shelter that was shuttered in late June.

The city just confirmed on Thursday the plan to reopen the shelter, following days of uncertainty for homeless campers, who didn’t know where they’d go next.

Among those campers is Lenny Concepcion. Concepcion and his girlfriend have slept at Centennial Campground since early July. They moved to the campground soon after Mayor Dave Bronson first closed the Sullivan Arena shelter and began waiving fees at Centennial, directing homeless people to go there.

Now, nearly three months later, Concepcion said it’s upsetting to have to move again. The back seat of his SUV is packed with his belongings. He has a full storage unit, too. 

“It’s kind of a little nerve-wracking,” Concepcion said. “Where am I going to move my stuff? First, I already don’t have a place, and now I have to move it. It’s a little bit… it’s a lot. It’s a lot.”

Lenny Concepcion plays with his dog at his campsite in Centennial Campground. The campground, which has served as a homeless camp for months, will close Oct. 1. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Concepcion said he learned the campground would close Saturday from a fellow camper. He plans to go to the Sullivan — in hopes he can get help finding a job — but he’s not thrilled about it.

“I’m really not looking forward to having to go to the Sullivan Arena, but if that’s something that’ll get me into a better situation after this, than I guess it’s something that could be in the plans,” he said.

Bronson’s homelessness coordinator Alexis Johnson said she’s been coordinating with the city Health Department and Henning, Inc., the contractor for the shelter, to get it ready for incoming campers. 

“We got everyone together, and just started — boots on the ground — getting things ready. We got cots mobilized, so we’re still doing that right now,” Johnson said on Friday. “[Maintenance and Operations] is securing parts of the building and we’re full steam ahead as to get this fully operational by tomorrow morning.”

Not every camper plans on going to the Sullivan though. 

At a site near a sledding area by the main Centennial gate, Wolf Shadowwind is starting his morning by making some coffee and watching his dogs. He’s not shy when describing how hard it’s been in the camp.

“I don’t care if it’s summer or winter, out here on the streets is not fun,” Shadowwind said. “People might stereotype, but f__k this. It’s stupid out here. You got people out here, not by their choice, and they get stereotyped every time they ask for that help. With me I’ve been asking for it for years.”

Wolf Shadowwind stands by his campsite. He hopes to get a job and housing in Big Lake when the camp closes on Saturday. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

As much as Shadowwind doesn’t like camping, he said he doesn’t want to stay in a shelter either. He can’t bring his dogs, for one. Also, he said, he doesn’t think that any providers will be able to help him get a job and housing. 

When the camp closes, he said, he’ll head to Big Lake, with the promise of work and shelter for himself and for — as he describes them — his four-legged “boys”. 

“A friend of mine talked to this one lady that owns a hotel or something,” Shadowwind said. “And I’ll be a caregiver there.”

As campers decide whether they’ll go to the Sullivan, the Assembly and the mayor’s office still are not on the same page about how many people can stay at the shelter. 

The Assembly’s emergency shelter plan, passed Monday, includes using the Sullivan to shelter up to 150 people. Plus, existing providers like Bean’s Cafe and Covenant House would expand operations and the city would use the former Golden Lion hotel as supportive housing. 

But the city argues that it can’t use the hotel right now because of building issues and fire code problems. A legal memo from the city’s attorney also noted issues with using the hotel as housing, saying it would require around-the-clock services and programs to move people into permanent housing.

For now, Johnson is requesting the Sullivan capacity be increased to 300 people instead. 

“If we can’t turn this on by Oct. 1,,” she said of the hotel, “how do we make sure that we have enough shelter capacity for at least the 200 people at Centennial, if not more people that are outside on our trail systems — Chester Creek, Davis Park, and other parts of the city?”

A large tan building with people around the steps
The Sullivan Arena Shelter. The arena was used as a shelter for two years, closing in June 2022. It’ll re-open as a shelter on Oct. 1. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Assembly members are countering with a proposal to increase the shelter’s capacity to 200. They would also lease 50 rooms at the Alex Hotel for non-congregate sheltering, while the city works out a plan to use the Golden Lion.

Assembly vice-chair Chris Constant said he’s fine waiting a week to fix issues involving fire codes at the Golden Lion hotel.

But he doesn’t believe the mayor’s office is working in good faith to use the hotel

“That’s the mayor and his team’s request, because for them, the simplest answer is not to implement the Golden Lion,” Constant said. “And if they put 300 people in the Sullivan, that solves their problem for them.”

He said he worries that this last-minute planning from the mayor’s team will leave some campers behind. 

“There is no universe where it’s acceptable to pull the carpet out from under people with 24 or 48 hours notice, then give them no options,” Constant said. “That’s just not right, and it’s, in fact, the exact same methodology that they used to demobilize the Sullivan Arena the first time. None of us knew. There wasn’t an effective, communicated plan.”

Whether it’s 200 or 300 people at the Sullivan Arena, Constant said, the Assembly may have to schedule a special meeting to increase the shelter’s capacity. Johnson said, until then, she’s working with a 150-person capacity.  

While the mayor’s office and the Assembly iron out the details on the sheltering plan, some campers say they’ve been able to find better options than the Sullivan. 

Ivan Cofey stayed at the Sullivan from January of this year until it was closed in late June. He and his girlfriend have been at Centennial since. He said he’s been working with a coordinator at Brother Francis who should be able to find them housing after they go to the Sullivan on Saturday.

“Once we get settled in at the Sullivan Arena, then we’ll be transferred, probably transported, to Brother Francis shelter, once I call her up and tell her we made it there,” Cofey said.

While Cofey is hopeful he’ll be able to get moved into housing, he said he doesn’t plan on being in Anchorage forever. 

“I’m going to get out of Anchorage,” Cofey said. “I don’t dig this place no more. So I’ll go back to Fairbanks — that’s where I first started when I came from California. I did pretty good in Fairbanks. I got two, three jobs, nice car, family there. I always had a helping hand.”

Officials from the city health department are due to arrive at Centennial on Saturday between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m.. Johnson said she anticipates that the first campers will be transported to Sullivan around 9 a.m.

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