Ben Boeke reopens for skaters as Anchorage pushes to move shelter residents into housing

A worker lays out mats in an ice rink under bright flood lights.
Bean’s Cafe employee Ruth Free lays out mats on a Ben Boeke ice rink ahead of the municipality shifting individuals to the new site in March, 2020. (Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

The Ben Boeke Arena in Anchorage opened to ice skating Monday. The city has decided not to use the popular community ice arena as an emergency homeless shelter.

Manager John Dyson said that one of the rinks opened on Monday for figure skating practices, while the other is being prepared for use next week. 

Jason Bockenstedt, chief of staff for Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, says that while the city considered reopening Boeke for homelessness services, it ultimately decided against it. 

“We believe that we’ll be able to create enough capacity through a number of different programs where the Boeke will not be necessary to use as an emergency overnight shelter,” he said. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, the city opened the arena to house women, couples and LGBTQ individuals. It was consolidated with another temporary shelter at the nearby Sullivan arena earlier this summer. Since then, demand for the Sullivan reached capacity, forcing the city to look for more options. 

The decision not to use Ben Boeke as a shelter came after a demonstration organized by hockey players and advocates who wanted to ensure that the arena was open for use Bockenstedt says that CARES Act funding recently approved by the Anchorage Assembly will help free up capacity at the Sullivan. 

“It’s our hope that with the million dollars that we’ll be able to house at least 200 adults currently staying at the Sullivan over the next couple of weeks to months. And that will certainly provide us with some of the necessary capacity that we certainly always see the need for as we get into the fall and winter months,” he said. 

Bockenstedt says he thinks that money, along with another $23 million dollars allocated for rental and mortgage assistance, will help mitigate an increase in demand for shelter space. National estimates show that the homeless population could rise by 50% due to the economic disruption of the pandemic. 

The city is also moving forward with its purchase of three properties to house individuals experiencing homelessness, but those properties wouldn’t fully make up for the bed space at the Sullivan, which currently houses over 350. That shelter has been running at capacity for the last few weeks, according to Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Cafe, which operates the shelter. She says that so far, the results are encouraging for finding people permanent housing. 

“They are coming in, they’re engaging in services, they’re getting medical attention, they’re having access to food, they’re having access to showers and laundry and they’re getting all their basic needs met, so that we can then start to help them find that pathway out of emergency shelter onto self-sufficiency,” she said. 

Bockenstedt says that it hopes to have those properties ready to go by the end of the year or in early 2021. 

Meanwhile, the city-owned Sullivan Arena will serve as the city’s main shelter and will be paid for by the FEMA funds, as long as the National Emergency declaration is in effect.