New Sullivan Arena shelter managers say they’re trying to change the tone for clients

People sit on their cots on the floor of an arena
Shelter clients at the Sullivan Arena on Sept. 24, 2021 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Upwards of 350 people stay at the Sullivan Arena shelter each night. But on Friday morning, things were quiet on the ground floor. Dozens of clients slept on folding cots as others ambled about or visited with friends. 

“I’ve been working around this place for about the last year and this is the most quiet and stable I’ve seen it,” says Robert Seay, who has been coordinating the transition for the city. 

99 Plus 1, a private company formed last September, took over the Sullivan Arena shelter on Sept. 16.

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

The transition had some problems. It took quick work from 99 Plus 1: everything from getting the right keys for supply closets and a supply of toilet paper, to setting up hundreds of new cots that got donated at the last minute. Seay said that managers were upfront with clients about the challenges they faced. 

“They communicated with all the people that are here saying that, ‘Hey, it’s gonna take a little while you’re going to put you’re going to get new bunks, you’re gonna get new totes,” he said. 

Shelter manager Zach Zears, fresh off a nap in the Sullivan’s VIP room, was bleary-eyed from days of living at the shelter. He said that open communication is key 99 plus 1’s philosophy.  

“I can’t speak to exactly how things were run previously, but I know that it relieves a lot of pressure when you just acknowledge somebody’s existence,” he said. 

99 Plus 1 has hired dozens of new staff, including workers from Bean’s and clients from the Aviator Hotel, a non congregate shelter it operates. Bean’s had to lay off over 70 employees when the new contract was awarded. Grant Rongstad, a shelter supervisor for 99 Plus 1, has hired between 45 and 50 new employees, including former Bean’s workers.  

Zears said the company is training new staff to foster a responsive, humanitarian culture. It’s a work in progress, but he said that staff have already made small changes in how they interact with clients. 

Even the language is changing.

‘Monitors’ are now ‘guest services’ (“Monitor to me reminds me of the sixth grade hall monitor” said Zears.)

The Navigation Center where clients are connected with resources like substance abuse treatment or housing is now ‘guest outreach’ (“Navigation implies these people are lost. These people aren’t lost,” said Zears.)

99 Plus 1’s effort got a boost from an influx of federal money for rapid rehousing that was earmarked for unhoused people in the city’s shelters. Together with efforts at the non congregate shelters, Catholic Social Services has housed about 25 people in the last month. 

Shawn Hays, mass care lead for the city, said overall, 99 Plus 1’s management seems to be successful. The city doesn’t have hard numbers from the police department, but anecdotally, the number of incident reports have decreased. 

Clients agree, mostly. 

Shelter guest Margaret McCaslin said there’s been a learning curve for the new staff as they figure out how to make things run smoothly from microwaves to security. The biggest difference she’s noticed is that there are fewer security guards to monitor hallways. 

“[It’s] good and bad and that but at least we don’t feel like we’re in North Korea,” she said, referring to the security guards under the previous management, who she said could be aggressive. 

And there’s the state’s never-ending shortage of mental health workers that can lead to disruptions at all hours. 

“Some of the ones with mental issues, they don’t get enough help here,” said McCaslin. “The schizophrenics or the ones whose brains are fried from drugs — they need to have a closer eye on them.”

Client Stephen Noble said he’s noticed staff are more personable. If there are incidents, the previous managers had the attitude of ‘Who can we kick out?’

“The new guys are more like, ‘How can we fix this without scarring your name?’,” he said. 

The new shelter has attracted at least one guest who previously preferred his tent in Mountain View. Army veteran Terry Albert said it feels relaxed here at the Sullivan, and he’s excited that he won’t have to bathe in the creek. 

“I won’t be doing that anymore,” he said. 

City officials hope that as temperatures drop, the new managers can lure in more campers like Albert.

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