Private company to take over operations at Anchorage’s largest shelter

a view of the Sullivan Arena shelter floor with a number of cots and people in masks spread throughout
Cots spread out on the floor of the Sullivan Arena on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. Shelter managers found that even with a few COVID-19 cases, nearby cots weren’t getting infected. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage’s largest homeless shelter will have a new operator starting Thursday, but city officials say there will be no disruption of services for the 400 people who stay there each night.

Mayor Dave Bronson announced Sunday that it had awarded 99 Plus 1, a newly-formed private company, the contract to operate the Sullivan Arena shelter for the next six months.

Nonprofits, including Catholic Social Service and Bean’s Cafe, have managed homeless services in Anchorage for decades. Bronson’s pick of a private company represents a rapid move to a different approach to shelter operations.

99 Plus 1 will take over the job from Bean’s Cafe, longtime operator of Anchorage’s largest soup kitchen. 99 Plus 1 was formed last September, according to state records. It previously provided transportation for guests at the Sullivan shelter and operated several of the city’s non-congregate shelters.

The city’s purchasing department released a document in August seeking an operator for the Sullivan Arena shelter. It required the new operator to have at least three years of experience providing homeless services. 

Bob Doehl, the city’s director of development services, said that the experience requirement was just one piece that a selection committee considered when analyzing the six bid proposals.

“It’s not just a yes or no,” he said.

Assembly member Meg Zaletel agreed.

“It’s not an entity with no experience, contrary to, I think, the reports out there,” she said. “They’ve been providing services to the non-congregate hotel mass care locations for some time.”

Zaletel said she was confident in the selection process, and 99 Plus 1’s status as a for-profit company wasn’t a concern because of strict federal rules governing the work.

“That contract is guided by the very specific elements of what FEMA will reimburse. So the profit status of the company I don’t think comes into play here at all,” she said.

The first challenge for the company will be staffing.

99 Plus 1 will need to maintain the shelter’s 30-to-1 staffing levels in order to provide for the same number of beds. The number of people seeking shelter tends to rise as temperatures drop, which they’re forecast to do in coming weeks. But the Sullivan is already operating at near capacity, according to city data. The new operators have only a few days to finalize their staffing plan before assuming operations.

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On Friday, Bean’s sent a letter to staff, laying off 77 of its employees.

99 Plus 1 is attempting to pick up some of those workers.

Doehl said that he’d met with officials from the company on Monday. He said despite the statewide labor shortage, he was confident that the company would be able to recruit the necessary staff.

On Monday, 99 Plus 1 employees were at the Sullivan handing out applications, and Doehl said many Bean’s staff had expressed interest. 

“I’ve met with 99 Plus One, they are confident they can pick this up on the 16th,” he said. 

Doehl said details of the contract haven’t been finalized but that it will be available “shortly.” The new contract with 99 Plus 1 will run until March 31, 2022, with the option for six one-month extensions.

Doehl said the committee that evaluated the bids weighed direct experience as one factor of five including references, experience with HMIS — a software for tracking who accesses homeless services — and the experience of the people running the company. 

Officials from 99 Plus 1 did not respond to requests for an interview in time for this story. 

The company is owned by Theresa Pisa and was formed Sept. 14 of last year. It has been operating some of the city’s other non-congregate shelters over the past year, and Doehl said company officials have experience operating other shelters. They include Jason Cates, 99 Plus 1’s manager, who Doehl said had a decade of experience working at shelters and as a local practitioner with a mental health background. 

“The cadre there really came out of the Anchorage Community Safety Patrol program and running the Anchorage Safety Center,” said Doehl. 

Lisa Sauder, Bean’s Cafe executive director, said she was proud of the work the Bean’s had done over the past year and a half in setting up the Sullivan shelter. She said that Bean’s would continue to serve Anchorage however it could. 

Bean’s Cafe had operated the mass care shelter at the Sullivan as a sole-source contractor since it was set up in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic. That contract was set to expire on Sept. 15 after several extensions. 

The city estimated it cost about $1 million a month to operate. Costs are fully reimbursed by FEMA under the federal disaster declaration.

The city could pay as much as $2.4 million to 99 Plus 1 through March to operate the shelter, not including food services, according to a letter sent to Assembly members.

Meanwhile, city officials are hoping to move people out of the Sullivan Arena as soon as possible, but are mired in a conflict with the Assembly over where they should go.

The Bronson administration has pushed for a mass shelter in East Anchorage, but Assembly members objected because its costs were unclear and its design may not be able to handle earthquakes or a lot of snow.

A group of Anchorage Assembly members and representatives from Bronson’s administration have been trying to narrow down new shelter options, including the mayor’s proposal.

But those talks reached a tense point last week following a barbed Twitter post from the mayor after the group said it was unlikely that they’d find an alternative shelter site before spring.

In a Twitter post, Bronson asked residents to contact Assembly members and “let them know you expect them to accelerate their efforts.”

RELATED: Anchorage working group narrows down potential shelter sites to 7

After the mayor’s tweet, Downtown Assemblyman Chris Constant spoke to reporters outside City Hall on Friday, and he questioned whether the mayor’s team was working in good faith. 

“Up until the mayor’s little Tweet — which he just couldn’t help himself — I thought we had a really great working relationship established between him, his team, and us, this delegation working on behalf of the Assembly,” said Constant. “At this point, there’s a lot of questions.”

Editor’s: This story has been updated with new information and to clarify that the new operator will take over the Sullivan on Thursday, not on Wednesday.

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