City racing to move people into housing as fall temps fill shelters

A purple fold-out sign with the words "Full Capacity". Behind it, a man in a tan jacket descends a ramp
The Emergency Mass Shelter at the Sullivan Arena has been running at or near its capacity for the past weeks, and shelter managers worry they’ll have to turn people away if the pressure continues. Photo taken on Sept. 21, 2020. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Managers of Anchorage’s temporary emergency shelter at the Sullivan Arena say that they have been running at capacity for weeks. That could be forcing people to stay outside on the street.  

Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Cafe, said that the shelter hasn’t had to turn people away directly, but keeps a waiting list when it’s full. On Monday afternoon, that list was more than 20 people. 

“We don’t know, you know, if they were able to find other shelter, or maybe they had a friend, maybe they had enough money to get a motel for a night, or if they’re camping, or if they’re truly going unsheltered. There’s really no way for us to be able to ascertain what their situation was then for that evening,” said Sauder. 

The city’s coronavirus dashboard shows that other shelters in town are also running at capacity.

Sauder said that demand for shelter increases every fall, but this year is like no other. The pandemic upended the city’s shelter system, sending homeless people temporarily to the Sullivan Arena. 

As the months have passed and people have become accustomed and started feeling safe at the shelter, even during a coronavirus outbreak among homeless in Anchorage, numbers have increased. Sauder said that people have even started to come to Anchorage from other places in Alaska as far away as Fairbanks.

And she said the shelter is worried that it might have to deny people entry when not enough people flow out of the arena in the evening. 

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“There’s nothing worse that I can envision for me than to have to ask an employee to do than to look someone in the eyes and tell them I’m sorry, we don’t have room for you,” she said. 

Sauder said that while providers have gotten hundreds of homeless into permanent housing, there’s still a bottleneck that could force people outside as winter sets in. 

“We’ve got to make sure we’re getting people out as quickly as we’re bringing them in or we’re gonna have a major problem,” she said. 

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A white man in a grey hoodie and a greying beard stands in front of a stainless steel sculpture.
Residents at the shelter work with providers to find permanent housing, but a city-wide shortage means that many have to wait weeks. Photo taken Sept. 21, 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The city has been racing to shore up its housing capacity in anticipation for the winter, though not all of it has been set up yet. Inside the Sullivan, guests can access different housing providers, but getting into housing can take weeks.  

The Anchorage Assembly allocated millions in CARES Act money for rehousing, and mortgage and rental assistance, which will hopefully ease the pressure on the system, says Jason Bockenstedt, the chief of staff for the Berkowitz administration. 

Not all of those programs have begun yet, but Bockenstedt says a rapid rehousing program should be ready in the next week or two. That could take up to 200 people off the street. The city is also making plans for if that’s not enough. In the past, the city has opened up other areas for emergency warming shelters if demand exceeds capacity. 

Cots are spread out on a stadium floor with empty bleachers spread around
Shelter managers say they learned to better use space at the shelter and have been able to increase its capacity up to about 370 making it one of the largest mass shelters in the country. Photo taken Sept. 21, 2020 (Lex Treienen/Alaska Public Media)

The city is also finalizing its plan to purchase properties that could open up hundreds of beds to keep people from homelessness. But Bockenstedt says that won’t be available until the end of the year.