As Anchorage’s mass shelter winds down, workers push to smooth transition for homeless residents

David Anderson waits in line to check into the emergency shelter at the Sullivan Arena on April 26, 2023. The shelter is set to close to most users on May 1. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

Over the last week, workers at the Sullivan Arena emergency shelter have set up what they’re calling “a war room” in an office inside.

A dozen or so big sheets of paper are stuck on the wall, each with headers for different types of client needs or potential aid, with the individual’s names and cot numbers listed below. 

The idea is to triage the 300-some people who are staying in the shelter, and focus service providers’ efforts on the individuals they can help in a final push before the state’s biggest emergency homeless shelter closes to most of its users on Monday. That means connecting people to whatever services they’re eligible for, and to get them some basic provisions for living outside. 

Monica Gross, a doctor and public health expert who works for Restorative and Reentry Services, walked through some of the lists in the war room.  

“Just lists of the veterans, lists of clients that are enrolled in the various programs here in Anchorage,” she said. “We have another list ‘needs a phone.’ Another list of the clients here that are working – we have almost 30 clients here that are actively working so they may be eligible for housing opportunities, because they have some income. Clients that are getting Social Security benefits, clients that have some disability, and clients that need IDs or are recently housed.”

Gross is part of a two-person team the Anchorage Assembly hired to help with the final days of the emergency shelter. 

The reality of the closure is sinking in with people staying here. On Wednesday morning, Jeremiah Cabe sat by himself at a folding table along a Sullivan Arena mezzanine. 

“Yeah, I need to find housing and food stamps to keep myself fed,” Cabe said. “Yeah, that’s all I have to say.”

Clients at the emergency shelter at the Sullivan Arena head out for the day on April 26, 2023. The shelter is set to close to most users on May 1. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

A lot of people in the shelter only had vague plans. Some expected to sleep outside starting next week, but didn’t have camping gear. Others hoped they’d finally make it to the top of a housing waitlist they’ve been on. Others had no idea where they’d go next. 

Cathleen McLaughlin, the other half of the consulting team, said many are in survival mode. 

“And when you’re in survival mode, you’re just frozen. You know, how do you move forward?” she said. “All your energy is spent either waking up, eating and trying to have some level of hygiene, and just existing.”

Also, she said, not everyone necessarily wants or is ready for help.  

“And we have to accept that that’s a reality,” she said. 

She and Gross said shelter staff have been proactive about letting clients know the shelter is closing. Ninety people who need the most help with basic activities like feeding themselves or showering will be able to stay through May. 

The other roughly 200 clients will have to leave Monday afternoon. Gross and McLaughlin think it will be a calm transition. 

“It’s time for this place to close. It’s absolutely time for this place to close,” McLaughlin said. “What I think has been unfortunate is that it has become a symbol by default, because we haven’t had a longer-ranging plan.” 

The Sullivan opened as an emergency shelter in 2020 when COVID-19 cut capacity at other shelters. It closed abruptly last summer, only to reopen months later. McLaughlin said it’s important for Anchorage officials to follow through on a goal of opening a permanent, low-barrier shelter by this fall.  

“We don’t have a place to rest right now when we close these doors,” she said.  

As Monday approaches, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness is giving out hundreds of care packages to people leaving the shelter. The packages have sleeping bags, a waterproof document container, food and personal hygiene kits.

The coalition is looking for volunteers to put together more kits to be given away at upcoming outreach events. More information on how to help out is on its website,

a portrait of a man outside

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him atjhsieh@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremyhere.

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