A small crew of volunteers has repurposed The Big Burrito concession stand inside Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena into a pop-up soup kitchen.
On the menu on a recent morning: hot oatmeal with brown sugar, butter and cream.
“Yummy!” Cassandra Segevan said as she got to the front of the line. “I’m so grateful for the food.”
The Sullivan Arena has been repurposed, too, to serve as an emergency cold weather shelter for hundreds of people in Anchorage who don’t have anywhere else to go.
Duke Russell put this volunteer crew together and lined up the donations he needed to prep meals. When he first started feeding people, he was handing out 50 burritos at a time off his scooter around camps and city streets. Now he’s making hundreds of meals at a time, sometimes twice a day, Monday through Friday at the Sullivan Arena.
“I started in June, and just kind of just felt my way through,” he said. “And I just ended up here. I didn’t really plan any of it. And it’s just kind of turned into a thing.”
He isn’t a professional cook or really, a professional anything in the social services world. He’s a Spenard artist best known for his paintings of urban Anchorage.
He began feeding people last summer, and spent a lot of time at the Centennial Campground. The city bused homeless residents to the campground after closing the mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena. The conditions in the park led to lots of police calls and bear encounters.
It also informed Russell’s art. He has a recent piece that is sort of a commentary on how the haves may consider something unacceptable for themselves, but not for the have-nots.
He painted the park’s log cabin office in the foreground. There’s a few people comfortably inside. Just outside, two people peer in through a window. In the background, two more people are fleeing bears walking through campsites.
“You would not put yourself in that place,” Russell said, pointing to the people in the background. “They’re asking these people to, though.”
He said there’s an attitude that, “Oh, that’s just an unsheltered person, they’re lucky to have it.” He thinks that’s wrong.
That goes for food, too. He thinks the people staying in the arena deserve better than cold cereal with powdered milk.
The city closed the campground this fall and then reopened the shelter at the Sullivan Arena. Russell eventually moved his operation indoors, too.
Inside the arena, the conditions are spartan and institutional. The Municipality of Anchorage hired a contractor to run it as a shelter. They cover free meal service for the clients here. Russell’s effort is not part of that.
“You gotta stir it,” he said, standing over a big pot of oatmeal at the former concession stand. “If you don’t stir it, the magic doesn’t happen.”
Russell said his unofficial meal service is about more than basic nutrition.
“It’s also about just the human contact and the respect given to someone,” he said.
He said those interactions won’t save the world. But they are baby steps, a little normalcy in a very unusual living situation.
“Duke is great,” said Rob Seay, who works for Henning Inc., which manages the Sullivan Arena and other shelters around Anchorage. “You know, he’s very passionate about this community. … We’re breaking bread with neighbors and friends. There’s a lot of therapeutic value over conversations, over meals.”
He said Duke Russell isn’t the only one stepping up.
“We would love a dialogue with individuals that want to help, groups that want to help and just really get, you know, like I said, bold and creative on how we provide service for this marginalized population,” Seay said.
For example, during the holidays a group from the Muldoon Community Assembly church came to sing Christmas carols. Some of the people staying at the shelter joined in. That’s healthy, Seay said.
When it comes to homelessness, a lot of us compartmentalize bits of our humanity. Russell said volunteering changes that.
“Once you see stuff happen, you just can’t walk away anymore, you know? And I was asleep, you know?” he said. “A lot of people that volunteer with me, the first thing they ask after service is like, ‘When can I do this again?’”
The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness maintains a list of volunteer opportunities on its website.