Anchorage Assembly calls for inquiry into leaked texts between city’s top homeless official and shelter contractors

Alexis Johnson
Alexis Johnson, homeless coordinator with the Anchorage Health Department, answers questions from reporters during a press conference about the Golden Lion Hotel in Anchorage on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

The Anchorage Assembly is calling for an investigation into the city’s top contractor for homeless sheltering after its chair obtained screenshots of group text messages sent between Henning Inc.’s top executives and the Bronson administration’s homeless coordinator.

Among the group texts highlighted in a packet distributed by Chair Christopher Constant at Tuesday’s Assembly meeting:

• A message from one Henning employee who said, “We should make a post on Facebook to encourage all our friends and family on Facebook to vote for mayor Bronson and post pictures of him working with our people and lets do transport for the clients to go vote and encourage people to register to vote when we do i/d on Monday.”

• In a separate screenshot, Henning’s deputy director said they should “incentivize voter registration” with “cigs, coffee (and) bus passes.”

• “Oh my gosh is this thread on Alexis government phone?” Henning chief executive Shawn Hays said in one exchange, referring to Alexis Johnson, the municipality’s top homelessness official. “If it ever gets subpoenaed we’re all going to have to leave town.”

For their part, Assembly members said the texts raise questions about whether Henning staff may have attempted to entice homeless clients to vote for Mayor Dave Bronson in the city election, and serious concerns about how Henning is managing shelters.

“I think there’s a lot that is disturbing in the document that we have before us and quite concerning, particularly on the last page — an implication that perhaps this operator was incentivizing people to vote with cigarettes and coffee and bus passes, specifically for Mayor Bronson,” said Assembly member Daniel Volland.

‘Out of context’

In an interview Wednesday, two Henning executives said the text messages were taken “grossly out of context” and denied doing anything unethical or illegal in operating shelters. They deny that any shelter residents were transported or given incentives to vote for Bronson.

“The text messages, I will admit, were unprofessional,” said Shawn Hays, the founder of Henning Inc. “Sometimes we just vent because the work is extremely hard.”

They said the close tone of communication between staff and Johnson reflects a relationship forged under stressful circumstances and is “like family.”

homelessness workers
Henning, Inc. CEO Shawn Hays talks with Municipality of Anchorage non-congregate shelter manager Rob Seay on Aug. 19, 2022 at the Aviator Hotel. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The Henning managers said Assembly members didn’t come to them for an explanation before voting for an investigation.

“I would love for the opportunity for (the Assembly) to sit down with us so we can really talk about some things and not just be talked about … in front of the whole city at an Assembly meeting, with things being taken out of context,” said Rob Seay, a manager for the organization.

In a written statement Wednesday, Bronson sided with Henning and Johnson, saying he was “concerned about why the messages were presented in such a way in the report to create a false narrative.”

“Henning staff has worked closely with Alexis and the Health Department for three years,” the statement continued. “They are family and they converse as such. Of course, some of the things said could have been written in a more mature or professional manner, but when your work becomes family, it’s natural to become more relaxed.”

In a 10-0 vote on Tuesday night, the Assembly passed a last-minute resolution that directs the Anchorage Health Department director to conduct a full review of all Henning, Inc. contracted operations, prioritizing the East 56th Avenue Shelter “to ensure Henning is in compliance with MOA contracts and its own policies and procedures.”

“Timeliness is essential,” said Constant. “If, in fact, the worst-case scenario is true, then we have vulnerable clients being managed by people who we need to really understand what’s going on.”

He did not say who sent him the screenshots.

Henning’s history

Henning has handled much of the city’s emergency winter sheltering efforts over the last two years, including the former mass shelter at Sullivan Arena.

It currently runs the city’s 200-bed emergency shelter on 56th Avenue in a former Solid Waste Services administrative building, and is contracted for services in city shelters at the Aviator and Alex Hotels. It also operates a low-income housing site at the city-owned former Golden Lion Hotel, and is a contractor under a city effort to house homeless residents.

The city says it has paid a total of $9,844,150.66 to Henning Inc. since it was formed in 2021, including “pass through” funds, according to Johnson.

It’s unclear exactly when the different text messages were sent, and the screenshots show parts of conversations but don’t include all context, such as how they began or ended. Johnson, Hays and Seay said the messages were sent months apart, and displayed out of chronological order. Johnson said the messages were all sent on her personal phone.

The messages include references to weapons — the deputy director appears to joke about using boxing gloves on a client, while another Henning employee says she is bringing her “glock.”

Seay, the deputy director, contends the boxing story and comment is actually a reference to his past habit of driving in Anchorage with a gun in his trunk, during a time he says he was in poor mental health. Seay said that he took up boxing at a gym instead, and the reference is to a client who wanted to try going to that gym as well.

The two statements in the text messages about encouraging people to vote — the one suggesting a Facebook post showing Bronson working with homeless clients, and the other about offering “cigs, coffee (and) bus passes” — were not connected, Hays and Seay contend.

Johnson says in one of the text messages that the time for voter registration is over but that “if you get PFD you’re registered,” and said, “Now we just need them to show up on polling day.”

Hays said the idea of posting photos of Bronson working with unhoused clients was “wrong.” But she flatly denied that Henning engaged in an organized effort to incentivize voting registration for shelter residents was any effort to turn out the vote for Bronson.

“It didn’t happen,” she said.

Another text thread includes Johnson telling Hays, “I got an Assembly resolution with your name on it if you succeed,” and, “Also I’m getting you the 10% admin fee… We don’t work for free.”

Johnson said the reference is to Hays offering to do things for free. “Shawn always wants to do things pro bono and at the end of the day, it’s not legal,” she said.

Hays later responds, “Oh my gosh is this thread on Alexis government phone? If it ever gets subpoenaed we’re all going to have to leave town.”

She said Wednesday she was joking.

“The appearance could look like it’s inappropriate,” Hays said. “The way we look at it is, yeah, we are a family. I mean, we have all cried together … we have created a bond.”

The Assembly’s call for an investigation comes as the city is also seeking to keep the 56th Avenue shelter open through the summer.

The city’s two other winter shelter locations are shutting down, leaving hundreds of homeless residents with nowhere to stay. The city has estimated around 900 people or more could be living unsheltered in Anchorage this summer.

Volland, the Assembly member, said in an interview on Wednesday he was looking to the health department for answers to whether the explanations offered by Henning and Johnson are accurate.

“The accusation is that it’s not all just jokes. I don’t know,” said Volland. “I don’t know how much is just banter. Or how serious, particularly around the incentivizing folks to vote.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Acting Health Department Director Kim Rash told the Assembly a review of Henning will take about two weeks.

This story has been republished with permission from the original at the Anchorage Daily News.

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