Anchorage homeless shelter managers optimistic demand has stabilized, but looming deadlines could derail progress

A man walks up a concrete staircase in snowy weather
The Sullivan Arena Emergency Mass Shelter on Dec. 3, 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Officials at one of the nation’s largest homeless shelters in Anchorage are optimistic that demand for services has stabilized, at least for now. 

The shelter is serving about 400 people, plus another 200 or so who are staying at the newly-opened shelter at the Fairview Rec Center, or at hotel rooms around town paid for by the city. 

“We have generally stabilized around 580 to 600 every night, which I think helps me believe that we have hit kind of a sweet spot, if you will, of really defining what the homeless population looks like right now,” said Cathleen McLaughlin, who oversees Anchorage’s emergency mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena. 

A few months ago as temperatures dropped, workers at the Sullivan arena saw a worrying increase in demand. McLaughlin said workers laid out extra floor mats to bump up the already stretched capacity, but demand kept rising. McLaughlin feared it would never end. 

McLaughlin said those additional options at the Fairview Rec Center and in hotel rooms are also helping managers incentivize good behavior at the shelter, since residents who stay there get more privacy. 

Workers at the shelter conduct assessments of clients to determine whether they are ready and capable of moving into a hotel room.  

“They have to self-advocate for themselves, so we will give everybody a try,” McLaughlin said. 

Once they pass that hurdle, they have to show their behavior at a hotel room by checking in via phone call or text to service providers every day. McLaughlin cheekily calls the program ‘Don’t be a knucklehead.’

McLaughlin said that as a result of that program, there are far fewer incident reports at the shelter each day as clients vie for spots at hotels. Of course, plenty have lost their chance to stay at those hotels by breaking rules. But McLaughlin said for some, a room to oneself sets them up for success.

“The beauty is that after people are stabilized into these hotel rooms, then they can move on to other opportunities to start focusing on moving forward. We have a couple individuals who just got jobs on the North Slope,” she said. 

These successes don’t mean that fears that the pandemic would force more people into homelessness haven’t played out. There are more people in the city’s shelter system right now than there have been any other year on record, according to Nancy Burke, who directs the city’s homelessness services.

Burke lauds the new availability of resources that has helped the city move people into permanent housing. But she worries those resources might not be enough for what could come. 

“The eviction moratorium ends on December 31. And people frankly, are running out of money with the assistance that was coming in from the federal government. So we could see an increase even beyond what we’ve seen so far,” she said. 

The city’s shelter system is also dependent on FEMA funding that’s accessed through the statewide disaster declaration, which is currently set to expire in mid-December. And after the city recently decided against purchasing a former gym that would have provided dozens of beds, the city is back at the drawing board for what to do post-pandemic.