Walter Tikiun has been staying at the Sullivan Arena since October. The Anchorage hockey arena turned into an emergency shelter at the beginning of the pandemic, closed last June, and then reopened as a cold weather emergency shelter last fall. It’s set to close on April 30.
When it does, Tikiun thinks it’ll be more dangerous for everyone.
“It’s stressful,” he said. “We’re growing gray hairs left and right, all of us. And we don’t even know what we’re gonna do. We don’t even have a plan.”
He said it can be chaotic at the Sullivan. It’s a low-barrier shelter, meaning being intoxicated or having a criminal record aren’t disqualifiers. But he prefers it to sleeping outside on his own.
“That’s our only option right now,” Tikiun said.
He’s one of about 460 people staying in the Sullivan Arena, the biggest of Anchorage’s three winter shelters. Another 140 people are staying in hotel rooms contracted for winter shelter use. They’re all set to close in two weeks.
Most people will have to start camping outside, as Anchorage Assembly members and service agencies plot what’s next. Homelessness experts expect the number of people sleeping outdoors to swell from about 300 now to as many as 800.
“We may have a couple weeks of chaos,” said Assembly member Daniel Volland.
Volland represents North Anchorage, where the Sullivan and many other resources are located for people without homes. He has repeatedly pressed to close the Sullivan. Its neighbors attribute graffiti, littering, pedestrians in the road, trespassing, open drug use, assaults and even outdoor deaths to people drawn to the shelter.
Volland thinks the shelter has to shut down for the rest of Anchorage to take part in managing homelessness.
“I think Anchorage as a whole is going to be better here, as we engage in this conversation and get some solutions online and are willing to think outside the box,” he said.
Instead of a mass shelter, he said multiple, smaller sites around the city would be better for the clients and for neighborhoods.
“For so long we’ve been fixated on the Sullivan,” he said during a discussion on shutting down winter shelters at Tuesday’s Assembly meeting. “One more month – just one more month. Just three more months. Just six more months. Just another year. How long is this going to draw out? So now’s the time. Now’s the time for a reset. And it’s going to be hard.”
Their attention is split, but one quick change will be to increase summer outreach, and they’ll vote on that soon. More outreach means meeting people where they are, including if it’s in a tent in the woods, with food, medical care, hygiene services, case workers and help with transportation.
They say there may be some last-minute opportunities to lease some rooms for the most vulnerable, there’s a new push to pilot a 30-unit tiny home village at some point this summer, and the former Golden Lion Hotel and Barratt Inn are both in the process of being converted into low-income housing.
The Assembly also wants to stand up a new, low-barrier shelter by next winter, so that the Sullivan Arena doesn’t reopen as a mass shelter for a fourth year.
All that work may be too late for the immediate reality of shelters closing.
Everyone’s situation is different. For some people, the conditions at the Sullivan were already more discouraging than the cold, and they chose to sleep outside.
Alfred Koonaloak has done both, but spent this winter at the Sullivan. Even though he uses a wheelchair – he lost a leg in a train accident years ago – he’s surprisingly at ease about what’s next. He hopes he can get housing for people with disabilities.
“If I don’t get housing, that’s OK,” he said. “At least I’m still alive and making it throughout the winter. … I’ve been sleeping outside for years. You know, I’ve just had to be in here because it was a very harsh, very, very difficult winter last year, and it got way below zero.”
Koonaloak said he’s grateful that he was able to stay in the Sullivan.