The beginning of the end? Sullivan Arena shelter scales down

two people walk on a sidewalk
Two homeless residents walk away from the Sullivan Arena shelter on May 1, 2023, when capacity was slashed to a quarter of its winter capacity. Before the scale-down, the Alaska Coalition to End Homelessness provided blue tote bags with sleeping bags, a waterproof document container, food and personal hygiene kits. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

On Monday morning, David Marsit was on the main floor of the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage looking frazzled. Shelter workers disassembled cots around him as he packed up his belongings in a pair of heavy duty plastic totes. 

“I’m feeling pretty chaotic right now, to say the least,” he said. 

He had a work shift beginning soon. He wasn’t sure how to keep his stuff safe, or where he’d be sleeping at the end of the day. 

“I don’t want to lose my job, I’m trying to keep it,” he said. “So I’m doing the best I can to try to make this work, but getting re-evicted is not helping matters. So that’s where I’m at.” 

Marsit was one of 166 people who stayed at the Sullivan on the last night before an Assembly policy took effect, limiting capacity to only the 90 most vulnerable people. Elected officials and the Sullivan’s neighbors hope this marks the beginning of the end of the arena serving as the city’s de facto, mass homeless shelter of last resort since the COVID-19 pandemic first reached Alaska more than three years ago.

It’s now at one quarter of the capacity it had been at for much of the winter, and no longer the state’s largest homeless shelter. 

The exodus wasn’t sudden. Many had already left in the last week, and only a trickle of people walked out for the last time on Monday. Some people got last-minute housing placements, some caught flights out of town to stay with friends or relatives, and many others left looking for a place to camp.

Marsit had been at the Sullivan for about a week and he was not sentimental about its doors closing on him.

“It’s been a place to sleep, that’s it,” he said. 

Still, he said he wished he had a little more time to get back on his feet without having to scramble.

There just isn’t enough alternative shelter space or affordable housing for everyone in Anchorage, which means a lot of people will have to make do outdoors, camping in public spaces.

It was an uneventful transition on Monday. Alexis Johnson, the municipality’s homelessness coordinator, contrasted it with the abrupt closure last summer.

Anchorage homelessness coordinator Alexis Johnson. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

“Last year, we shut the doors, we locked them up and we said, ‘Hey, we have transportation, it’s going to Centennial (Campground), and if you’re not on that bus, you can’t stay here,’ she said. “This year, because we kind of had this dropdown, it’s offered us a little bit more of a graceful transition for people to slowly roll out.” 

Tables of donated clothes and odds and ends were among the last stops for clients leaving the Sullivan on Monday morning. 

“We’re just letting all the clients … see if there’s any warm gear, any outdoor stuff they want or need before they go hit the streets, unfortunately,” Johnson said. 

By lunchtime, temperatures hovered around 47 degrees, and Marsit was outside the Sullivan, wolfing down a slice of pizza. His employer was flexible about letting him start later than usual and he worked out storage for his stuff for another 24 hours.

He still didn’t know where he’d be sleeping at the end of the day – maybe a hostel, he thought? He hopped on his bike and pedaled off to his work shift.

Homeless residents sit on the steps of the Sullivan Arena, as many are forced to leave the makeshift shelter. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him at or 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremy here.

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