Anchorage’s new 150-bed shelter opened at the end of last month in an unused city building. It was supposed to be the final piece of Anchorage’s emergency cold weather shelter plan for this winter.
About 1,000 people are on a list waiting for emergency shelter. That’s as the cost of rent has jumped since before the pandemic.
Yet, on the newest shelter’s third day open, only 22 of the 150 cots were claimed.
“So it is very empty,” Crystal Abbott said at the time.
She’s the director of operations for Henning Inc., the nonprofit with contracts to run Anchorage’s three main winter shelter sites.
“I know when the sun is out and it’s still kind of warm and there’s a congregate shelter, they don’t usually come until it gets too cold or it starts snowing,” Abbott said.
“Congregate” basically means the beds are in a shared common space, as opposed to individual rooms or apartments.
Henning is running two other winter shelters for the city that are non-congregate. They’re in hotels, and those rooms did fill quickly after opening.
Abbott said a lot of people on the waitlist don’t want to go into the group shelter.
“So I know a lot of them are couples who want to stay together in their room,” she said. “So they will wait until a room becomes available. They stay on the list.”
That lines up with results of a survey the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness ran in September and October at outreach events. Respondents said they strongly preferred a more private space. Separation from a significant other was the most common reason those surveyed gave as a barrier to going into shelter. That was followed by a disability or mobility challenge, and then pets, which generally aren’t allowed in the hotels.
At the new congregate shelter, there are smaller rooms set aside for pets.
“A lot of the people at the camps will not come in and leave their dogs there,” Abbott said. “Because nobody wants to leave their babies outside.”
Henning also ran the mass shelter inside the Sullivan Arena last winter. About 500 people would fill the cots and crowd into an overflow warming area on the coldest days.
“In the beginning of Sullivan, we were slow to open and then we got fairly full, fairly fast,” she said. “So I believe that’s what’s going to happen here, too.”
Two dumps of snow have fallen in Anchorage since the shelter opened. And as Abbott predicted, a lot more of the cots inside are now filled. Only 35 beds were free as of Wednesday. With plenty of winter to come, she thinks it’s just a matter of time and temperature until it hits capacity.
Shawn Steik got a cot in the shelter on its second night open.
“After the COVID hit, then the rent prices went skyrocket,” he said. “I can’t pay $1,300 for a one-bedroom apartment. So I got expedited out of the place and I’ve been homeless ever since.”
As the city closed the mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena, officials and nonprofits were creating hundreds of new, affordable apartments that opened this summer by converting hotel rooms into permanent housing. Despite that, demand for temporary winter shelter appears to be much higher than last winter.
Dramatic increases in the average rent in Anchorage are a likely factor in that demand. According to state data, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Anchorage is $1,278. That’s up nearly 20% since before the pandemic in 2020.
As rent becomes less affordable, that directly contributes to more people becoming homeless. Researchers studying pre-pandemic national data found specific thresholds of un-affordability that predict homelessness. They published an academic paper in 2021 about their findings.
In a summary about the work, which was based off of 2018 data, the researchers flagged Anchorage as being at especially high risk of more people becoming homeless if the cost of rent went up or poverty worsened.
Steik grew up in Anchorage and went to East Anchorage High School. He said he spent the last seven months or so mostly camping outdoors, on a hill near the Alaska Railroad depot in downtown Anchorage.
“You go by Ship Creek and you look up that hill, that’s all you see, is trouble,” he said. “I mean everybody is back and forth passing deals – drugs. And if you want to have a good life, you wouldn’t want to hang down there. And I was tired watching over my back.”
After his first night in the shelter, he said he was already feeling better.
“A lot more safer, warmer,” he said. “And I didn’t have to worry about being stolen from in the middle of the night.”
Steik has worked in a lot of downtown restaurants as a dishwasher. He said he hopes to use the shelter as a stepping stone: Stay out of the cold, get back to work and get back into an apartment of his own.
Alaska Public Media’s Matt Faubion contributed to this story.