If Anchorage doesn’t act soon, ‘we’re going to be putting people back in Sullivan’ 

A large tan building with a stairwell in the front
The Sullivan Arena, pictured here in June of 2022, housed hundreds of people during the COVID-19 pandemic. It shut down in the summer of 2022, then reopened as a winter emergency shelter that fall. It’s set to close as a shelter again at the end of May. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

An Anchorage Health Department official warned Wednesday that the Sullivan Arena will likely reopen again as a cold-weather emergency shelter in the fall, unless the city acts soon to establish new, low-barrier shelter space. 

“We’re going to be putting people back in Sullivan, unless we all come together within next week, two weeks, three weeks, and start building a facility or identifying a facility,” said Alexis Johnson, the health department’s housing and homelessness coordinator, during an Anchorage Assembly Housing and Homelessness Committee. “Because right now, we are making plans for the Sullivan Arena. And that’s just unacceptable.”

The Assembly shut down the Sullivan Arena shelter to most people earlier this month, and plans to close it completely at the end of May. Assembly members representing the area feared the temporary shelter, which opened during the pandemic, would host the city’s most vulnerable residents indefinitely.

But they’re still trying to figure out a permanent solution, as encampments grow around the city and shelter space remains full.

The Assembly had set a goal to open a permanent, low-barrier shelter by Nov. 1 to avoid using the Sullivan as a cold-weather shelter again. Assembly member Daniel Volland said that is an ambitious timeline. 

“I think there is a reality that we need to admit to ourselves, that we are going to have to budget for emergency winter shelter this winter,” he said. “We’re gonna need it, we’re gonna need capacity. We’re gonna need to spend millions of dollars with community partners to make that happen.”

Johnson had a similar perspective. 

“I think we’re behind the eight ball,” she said. “I think we’re spending a lot of time in committees and town halls and community engagements. And we’re going to come up with the same answer that we’ve had.”

In the last three years, city leaders have considered several proposals to add more low-barrier shelter space, only to hit impasses because of neighborhood pushback, policy conflicts or administrative dysfunction

“I think the thing that’s been missing in this community for many years is enough community will to get this done, without it devolving into an argument or fight over where it goes,” said Assembly member Anna Brawley. “That’s one serious thing the whole community needs to grapple with, including leadership.”

The concept that got the furthest was a scaled down version of what Mayor Dave Bronson campaigned on in 2021: A shelter and navigation center at a police impound lot near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads. 

A contractor began work on that project last year, but without Assembly approval to pay for it. The Assembly suspended the project, and the contractor is suing to get paid. 

Assembly member Kevin Cross said it makes sense to revive that project. 

“If we really, really are concerned about the safety of these people, we care about them compassionately, let’s just build it,” he said. “Let’s put human compassion before political spite and finish the Tudor navigation center, which we own everything for, and had a budget for, and can be done in 120 days.” 

Cross said he feels like he’s been beating his head against the wall. 

“We have the resources, we have the means,” he said. “We don’t, apparently, have the political will to do it, because it’s still collecting dust over there. And that’s what frustrates me. It’s not that we don’t have the ability to do it, we just aren’t doing it.”

Assembly member Randy Sulte said he will introduce a measure to move ahead with the project. 

Johnson flagged another looming issue: funding. The city spent about $5.2 million in 2022 on winter shelter. It’s budgeted to spend $6.5 million this year. 

“We have to come to the realization that we have been spending way beyond our means for the last two years, and this money is no longer there,” she said. “It’s not going to be there for winter. And right now, we’re working on a winter plan on $4 million. And our numbers show we spent way beyond that last year to shelter, you know, 2,000 people throughout the system, throughout the cold weather winter. So unless the state steps up or the feds step up, we’re working on trying to emergency cold weather shelter with housing-focused exits on $4 million, and it’s just not there.”

Felix Rivera, who chairs the committee, said discussion on winter shelter plans will continue at a meeting in June. 

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.

Previous articleTwo Native-led green banks are starting up in Alaska
Next articleChugach Front Linkup 2023: New Peak, New Record