Anchorage Assembly orders third-party oversight of emergency cold-weather shelters

Cots and totes are organized on the floor of an arena.
The Sullivan Arena, Anchorage’s low-barrier emergency winter shelter, currently can sleep up to 360 people under city code. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Some basic needs of people staying in city-funded emergency cold weather shelters are not being met, according to the head of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. 

In a note Tuesday to some Anchorage Assembly members, coalition Executive Director Meg Zaletel said that conclusion came after fielding complaints since mid-December about issues at the Sullivan Arena, Alex Hotel and Aviator Hotel. These facilities have been housing hundreds of people this winter with nowhere else to go. Zaletel said the most common complaints are about personal safety, hygiene, food, water, medical needs and staff. 

Zaletel is also a member of the Assembly, though she recused herself from the Assembly’s live deliberations on the topic Tuesday. In her note, she included an anecdote about a client who’d secured a job, but whose living situations in the Sullivan Arena and Alex Hotel were too unstable to keep it.

“This should be alarming to everyone in our community,” said Felix Rivera, chair of the Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee. “People experiencing homelessness deserve better.” 

The municipality has been contracting with Henning Inc. to operate the three facilities as shelters this winter. The complaints came up as the Assembly considered funding Henning’s contract through the end of April. 

The Assembly did approve spending another $4.6 million in alcohol taxes for these services. But it set aside $25,000 for third-party oversight

“We were taken aback by it, but we welcome it,” said Henning founder and CEO Shawn Hayes. “Because we do, we’ve always operated with transparency. And we look forward to making any improvements, you know, that we need to make.” 

A woman with black hair and glasses poses for the camera
Shawn Hays on Nov. 10, 2021. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

She acknowledged complaints, but said they’ve been promptly investigated and resolved. 

The $25,000 will go to Cathleen McLaughlin’s business Restorative and Reentry Services. Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said McLaughlin is uniquely qualified for the oversight role, after working on the municipality’s mass shelters during the pandemic response and a long career helping people leave prison and the streets. 

The particulars of her duties are to be determined, but the Assembly’s action requires publicly posting how to lodge complaints and concerns, and regular reports to the Assembly and the administration. 

Jeremy Hsieh has worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He lived in Juneau from 2008 to 2022 and now lives in Anchorage.

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