Sullivan Arena back on the table as a possible 150-bed emergency homeless shelter

·11 min read

Sep. 22—Sullivan Arena

The Anchorage Assembly's committee on homelessness is encouraging Mayor Dave Bronson to reopen Sullivan Arena as a shelter this winter for up to 150 people — the same facility the city used as a COVID-19 mass homeless shelter for more than two years, until the Bronson administration shuttered it in June.

Anchorage city officials are rushing to stand up emergency winter shelter by Oct. 1 for up to about 350 residents experiencing unsheltered homelessness, including around 200 living in Centennial Park Campground. The Bronson administration directed and bused dozens of homeless people who had been staying in Sullivan Arena to the East Anchorage park as it closed the shelter.

Under pressure of imminent cold weather and a legal deadline for the city to provide emergency winter shelter, the Assembly's Committee on Housing and Homelessness largely reached a consensus for a plan on Wednesday.

Its preferences include using Sullivan and the former Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown for housing — both city-owned buildings that, for two years, have been at the center of frequent political clashes over homelessness policy. The committee also wants the city to fund efforts of existing homeless service providers to add shelter capacity. And following widespread community opposition, it nixed recommendations from its community-led Emergency Winter Shelter Task Force to use the Dempsey Anderson or Ben Boeke ice arenas.

Documents that will allow the administration to implement the plan, including necessary city spending, will face a vote of the full Assembly during a special meeting on Monday, committee chair Felix Rivera said.

How the city ultimately proceeds with winter shelter is not just a decision of the Assembly or its homelessness committee. The responsibility for implementing winter shelter plans and power to open shelter in a municipal facility rests with Bronson and his administration, while the Assembly has the power to allocate funding for those plans.

"I think it's safe to say, just based off of reactions from the public, what we've seen in our emails, the Assembly, that we have a plan. Of course, there's a caveat. We need to wait and see what the mayor says," Rivera said.

The committee used other suggestions from the task force to come up with a plan to act quickly. Its action plan — if the mayor and enough Assembly members agree to it — could shelter more than 350 people for the next 90 days, according to the task force's estimates:

—The city would open the former Golden Lion Hotel in Midtown as leased housing for homeless people, with about 120 people in the building's 85 rooms. This is the least expensive piece, costing an estimated $371,000. Rooms would be leased to residents, up to 170 people if all units were shared by two roommates. Rents would be paid through emergency rental assistance and housing vouchers.

—Sullivan Arena would be a walk-in, low-barrier shelter for up to 150 people, likely with a warming tent outside. It's much smaller than the COVID-19-era mass shelter, which at times sheltered 500 people a night. This is the most expensive part of the committee's plan at an estimated $1.4 million for operations from October through December.

Because the Sullivan is not in use, and other city facilities on the task force's list of fastest options are vital pieces of the community or in "perfect condition," the arena is the best site "from a harm-reduction perspective," Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said.

—The city would fund existing service providers, adding 25 beds for young adults at Covenant House and 40 beds for adults via Bean's Cafe. Bean's would open a semi-congregate shelter in a former hostel and boarding house building it is leasing in Midtown. Together, these would cost $506,000. That's in addition to another 20 beds that Brother Francis Shelter downtown is slated to open by Oct. 1, which the city has already funded.

During a meeting Wednesday, the committee rejected its Emergency Winter Shelter Task Force's top picks for shelter, which recommended using the Dempsey Anderson or Ben Boeke ice arenas. Members of hockey leagues and leaders of hockey associations showed up en masse on Wednesday to voice their opposition using ice arenas. And during a Tuesday night Anchorage School Board meeting, members of the public also testified against use of the Dempsey arena as a winter shelter.

Assembly committee members and school board members broadly agreed with the concerns, given the arena's proximity to West High and Romig Middle schools and its use as a youth hockey facility.

Bronson, in a social media post ahead of the meeting, said he is "100% opposed" to the idea of using Dempsey and Ben Boeke arenas, and that impacts to youth, hockey and residents "would be devastating if the Assembly does this" — though the final decision to use any city building for shelter is up to the mayor, not the Assembly. He urged residents to oppose the idea and email Assembly members about it.

In the post, he did not indicate an alternative option or his preference for a shelter location. Previously he proposed using 20 portable buildings, an idea which the task force and several Assembly members have said is likely not viable or timely.

Many residents in attendance Wednesday supported using the Golden Lion for housing and also voiced support for using Sullivan rather than the other two arenas. Both facilities are currently unused, save for ongoing repairs to the Sullivan due to damage from the 2018 earthquake and wear from its time as a mass shelter.

A rapidly approaching deadline

The emergency shelter task force was called upon by the Anchorage Assembly to quickly draft plans for sheltering after Bronson officials last month did not attend a meeting or provide detailed plans. It is led by the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. At Wednesday's meeting on homelessness, it presented to the committee its final recommendations for emergency shelter from Oct. 1 through the next 90 days.

That includes using the Golden Lion Hotel to provide housing, not shelter.

For winter shelter to open swiftly, the Assembly and Bronson administration must reach a consensus. And the clock is ticking.

Bronson announced this month he would close Centennial Park Campground on Sept. 30.

Additionally, the city faces a deadline enshrined in law to open emergency shelter once temperatures drop below 45 degrees and "when a lack of available shelter options poses a danger to the life and health of unsheltered people." Currently, no walk-in, low-barrier shelter exists in Anchorage for the first time in decades. The only beds available are largely in high-barrier, privately-run shelters, requiring sobriety and sometimes a religious component, while low-barrier private shelters are full and have long waitlists.

Bronson officials on Wednesday did not indicate whether the mayor would concur and said the administration wants to hear from residents in a "robust public process" before opining.

"In regards to all of these options, I think the most important thing is for the administration to listen to the public on all of these options, because we know that there's going to be — we've seen that there's controversy on some of these things. There may not be on others, but I think it's a little bit premature for us to say yes or no," Adam Trombley, Bronson's chief of staff, said.

Assembly member Forrest Dunbar and other committee members said they were frustrated that the administration would not yet give an opinion, given the looming deadlines.

The Bronson administration has switched courses a handful of times on its own winter shelter plan. Previously, it announced it would move unsheltered homeless residents at Centennial into shelters in two community recreation centers, but quickly withdrew those buildings from consideration after broad community pushback.

Golden Lion, Golden Lion Hotel

Uncertain future for Golden Lion

Several Assembly members said they have seen a lot of emails from residents supporting the use of the Golden Lion for housing homeless residents.

Bronson has long opposed the city's $9 million purchase of the former hotel for a substance abuse treatment center, and his criticism of the purchase was key to his campaign for mayor. Earlier this month, after pressure from Assembly members to move forward with that project, Bronson announced he is not considering a treatment facility in the building. He said that is due to a planned $100 million state transportation project at the Seward Highway and 36th Avenue. The project is not yet funded or in the state's transportation improvement program.

In response to an inquiry in August from the mayor's office about the project and its potential impact on the Golden Lion, Alaska Department of Transportation officials sent a letter to the city this month, according to a spokesman for the department.

Officials in the letter said the project would affect the property and has a "high likelihood" of a "total take of the property." Previous public documents on the property and past statements from department officials indicated only the parking area would be affected.

Broad support for the Golden Lion's use as a housing facility this winter appears to be growing among Assembly members, including those who are generally more aligned with the conservative Bronson administration, such as Kevin Cross and Randy Sulte.

Centennial Park campground

What happens after Centennial is closed?

A city project spearheaded by Bronson to build a shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage near Tudor and Elmore roads is far from complete. Last week, Assembly members voted to postpone, until late October, consideration of $4.9 million needed to continue construction. Some said they would not support the funding until Bronson agrees to use the Golden Lion this winter and also to take serious steps to pursue a possible treatment center at the location.

[Already under construction, East Anchorage homeless shelter project is hanging by a thread]

"My question is, for the administration, if we weren't having this meeting today, you know, we are nine days out from the closing of Centennial Park, where would you propose those folks go?" Dunbar said. "You're not going to have the shelter at Tudor and Elmore done in time. You've taken the rec centers off the table. So where actually would the folks go if we didn't do this?"

Trombley pushed back on that.

"We understand that the Assembly authorized the task force to look at multiple locations. And so we were waiting to see what those locations were. Those locations have been identified. And now that they've been identified, they should be vetted with very public process. So I can't deal with hypotheticals," Trombley said. "What would we do if this had not happened or that might happen? We have to deal with we're going to deal with what is reality. And that is the very real reality in front of us, is this task force recommendation. So once we understand the public's position on this, we'll be happy to support or oppose based on what we hear from the public."

He also told members that while the campground will be officially closed at the end of the month, because of a federal court ruling, the city likely can't clear people from it if there is no shelter alternative.

Bronson's homeless coordinator, Alexis Johnson, said the campground's front gate will be closed. Service providers can still do outreach work there, she said.

For services that have needed vehicle entry, such as food delivery, helping Centennial residents may become far more complicated.

"Once the campground closes, we will not be able to get vehicles in and out of the campground. That's actually a big concern and I think it will actually become less safe than it is," executive director of the coalition, Meg Zaletel, said. (Zaletel is also a Midtown Assembly member.)

Bronson officials have not acknowledged Centennial as an official homeless response and have provided no services there, relying on efforts of community members and service organizations to meet basic needs. Many Assembly members have blasted the administration for closing Sullivan without alternative shelter in place.

Homeless service advocates say moving people back to Sullivan makes matters worse.

"The Sullivan was closed and they were displaced. They were not put into shelter. And to move them back to the site that we all demobilized is also another form of trauma," Terria Ware, an administrator for the coalition, said. "... Because they could've stay there, and not experienced bears, and wet, and cold and lacking those services."

Once the city stands up shelter, the administration recommends that campers will be able to take two totes of belongings, Johnson said. Parks and Recreation will store other belongings for up to 30 days, she said.

Bronson's own emergency shelter plans include lodging residents from Centennial in 20 portable buildings provided by the Anchorage School District. The task force in its recommendations opposed that option over the lack of restrooms and showers in the buildings, concerns over costs, safety and staffing, and for not yet having any feasible locations identified.

Rivera said Wednesday that the buildings could not be ready for use by Oct. 1. Assembly members and the task force largely agree that using a city-owned building such as the Sullivan is the quickest way to provide shelter.