Anchorage Assembly reluctantly approves adding more beds to Sullivan Arena shelter

Cots arranged in rows on the floor of an arena.
The Sullivan Arena, Anchorage’s low-barrier emergency winter shelter, can sleep up to 200 people. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage’s biggest emergency cold weather shelter now has bed capacity for up to 360 people, under certain conditions.

The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday grudgingly approved adding 160 beds at the Sullivan Arena shelter, green-lighting a version of a proposal that Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration first floated two weeks ago, with the shelter at capacity.

Assembly members said Tuesday that bad communication from the administration, the unauthorized creation of an overflow warming area and the concentration of people who are homeless in one neighborhood didn’t outweigh the humanitarian need.

“Homelessness, and I know some will disagree with this, but it has been politicized,” said Assembly member Randy Sulte, “and the homeless are paying with their lives. We all have a part in where we are.”

Bronson and the Assembly have long sparred over how to house the city’s homeless. Assembly members have said they prefer having multiple smaller shelters to mass shelters. Bronson pushed building a new, large shelter in East Anchorage, but the Assembly rejected spending more money on the project in October.

The Sullivan, formerly a hockey arena and event venue, first opened as a shelter during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, under then-Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. Bronson closed the shelter this past summer, sending people to a campground in Northeast Anchorage. Then, by fall, the city shut down the campground and transported people back to the Sullivan.

The Assembly authorized up to 200 beds in the arena, which have been full since late November.

There’s also a separate warming area in a bare, concrete hall inside the arena with some tables and chairs. On the coldest days, scores of people crowd in. Many sleep on the ground. Some just stop in for a snack and hot drink. Others are waiting for a bed to open up, which comes with regular meals, navigation services and other amenities.

As many as 178 people have passed through the warming area in a single 24-hour period, said Alexis Johnson, the muni’s housing and homelessness coordinator. Johnson said she can’t offer beds, meal service or navigation services to people in there without exceeding the 200-bed capacity limit, set by Assembly policy.

She encouraged the Assembly to approve adding more beds.

“When we bring people experiencing homelessness inside, and we offer them a bed and services and food, they’re less likely to be in the neighborhood,” Johnson said. “Right now, it feels like there’s a surge in the neighborhood. I want to bring that group of people inside, feed them, give them a bed, give them access to services, and this capacity increase will do so.”

The Sullivan is one piece of the Assembly’s cold weather shelter plan, which includes converted hotels and traditional shelters. Other shelters in the city are also at capacity, Johnson said, and cannot be expanded.

At the same time, conditions outside have been inhospitable, to say the least. Several feet of snow have fallen on the Anchorage Bowl in the last two weeks, followed by days of sub-zero temperatures. The Anchorage Daily News counted 24 people thought to be homeless who have died outdoors this year.

James Thornton, representing the Fairview Community Council, told the Assembly Tuesday that the expansion adds to an unfair burden his neighborhood is dealing with. But after touring the Sullivan and seeing the warming area, he supports the expansion.

“We can do better, and I was quite frankly, just sort of embarrassed, as an Alaskan, that that’s what it resorted to: Folks sleeping on the floor like sardines,” Thornton said.

Beyond the immediate need, he said the people the Sullivan is serving need more permanent situations.

Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson said the administration’s expansion request is part of a pattern of behavior.

“You know, this feels a little bit like the same thing over and over again,” Quinn-Davidson said. “You all do something last minute. Sit around for months, don’t solve problems. Do something last minute. Don’t explain it to anyone. Don’t approach Assembly members and say, ‘Here’s what we’re looking to do and this is why.’ And then expect us to vote on something without any knowledge of it. And frankly, it just feels like amateur hour.”

Some members of the Assembly — and the recently fired municipal manager, according to the Anchorage Daily News — have said simply opening the warming space inside the arena violated city code governing the use of the Sullivan Arena as an emergency shelter.

Assembly member Forrest Dunbar asked Bronson why he didn’t declare an emergency to address the unmet shelter need, which would resolve the authorization issue.

“At the end of the day, winter isn’t an emergency,” Bronson told Dunbar. “Cold weather in Alaska is not an emergency. … As I stood there in the warming shelter looking at people crowding in — I had to take action. At the end of the day, I was forced into a moral dilemma, and I chose the one that took the path that protected people in cold weather.”

Before passing the expansion 10-0, the Assembly amended the administration’s original request with several sideboards: The expansion authorization expires Jan. 27, other low-barrier shelters in the city must be near capacity for the extra beds to be authorized and, when authorized, the Assembly and nearby community councils must be notified.

Alaska Public Media

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