Despite complaints, Anchorage mayor’s administration says new Sullivan shelter is on track

Joe Gerace looks over the shelter floor
Joe Gerace, Anchorage’s acting health director, takes journalists on a walkthrough tour of the Sullivan Arena shelter on Nov. 1, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

City officials say they are pleased with a new private company that took over the Sullivan Arena shelter a month and a half ago. 

That comes despite some reports of increased violence, unhygienic conditions and lax rules at the shelter, which sleeps about 400 people every night. 

“It’s all scuttlebutt,” said Joe Gerace, Anchorage acting health director.

During a walk through with journalists on Monday, the floor of the Sullivan Arena was mostly quiet. An employee mopped between cots, something Gerace said happens multiple times each day. The toilets in the building have been closed for over a month due to clogged pipes, so porta-potties are set up in an enclosed area outside. 

Gerace acknowledged that there have been some difficult incidents recently, but said the shelter is still on track.

The Anchorage Daily News recently published a story about a client at the Sullivan who wasn’t given proper care for an infection and nearly died. Alaska’s News Source reported on conflicts with neighbors over trash and behavior around the shelter. A security guard was also recently threatened with a knife outside the shelter, resulting in an arrest. A person died inside the shelter recently.

At an Assembly update last week, Gerace acknowledged the rules 99 Plus 1 has for clients could be improved to ensure safety.

“Bean’s had a very strong behavioral policy. I will admit that the current vendor hasn’t,” he said.

The temporary shelter at the Sullivan has been the center of a long, tense public debate about how to more permanently house and care for its residents since it was set up at the beginning of the pandemic. The Assembly and administration recently agreed to a compromise plan to move out of the Sullivan and into smaller shelters around town. But they are still weeks or months away from opening any new shelters.

Several recent firings and resignations among the city’s homelessness leadership have further contributed to a sense of instability.

Anchorage's acting health director Joe Gerace poses for a photo outside of the Sullivan Arena shelter
The Anchorage Health Department took on oversight of the Sullivan Arena and other shelters a few weeks ago after a staff shakeup within the Bronson administration. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Gerace said he comes to the Sullivan every day, sometimes early in the morning, and said he’s happy with how things are going under 99 Plus 1, the newly-formed private company that took over shelter operations from Bean’s Cafe in mid-September.

“When I’m here, this is generally exactly what I see: people being taken care of by the staff in a clean and safe environment,” said Gerace, who has been in his position for just over a month. 

Aside from transitioning to a private company, oversight of the shelter moved from the emergency operations department of the city to the health department. That transition came after the city fired Shawn Hays in mid-October. Hays previously oversaw the Sullivan and several hotel shelters and is now doing administrative work for 99 Plus 1. 

99 Plus 1 was chosen to operate the Sullivan shelter after going through the city’s formal bid process. Bean’s had operated the shelter since it was set up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Bean’s requested a review of the bid selection process but Corey Allen Young, a spokesperson for Mayor Dave Bronson, said in an email that the city had already granted the contract under emergency procurement rules. 

Lisa Sauder, director of Bean’s Cafe, said she was in talks with former homeless coordinator John Morris to retake operations of the shelter on Nov. 1. Sauder said that she believed Morris had concerns about the conditions at the shelter under the new management. Those talks ended when Morris resigned Oct. 25. Morris has declined to comment since he left the administration. 

“I don’t want to speak for Dr. Morris, but for him, I think, to advocate that hard for for a change in operator after only a few weeks or a month, I’m sure he had very good reasons for it,” said Sauder.

Meanwhile the city is asking Bean’s for money.

In August, the city sent a letter to Bean’s, saying the nonprofit owed the city over $260,000 for billing errors it had made while overseeing the Sullivan. According to the letter, signed by Hays, Bean’s had billed for a security team the city said Bean’s did not have, had failed to report some 911 calls to the city as required under its contract and had overcounted the number of clients staying at the shelter each night. Sauder said Bean’s continues to work with the city to resolve those complaints and declined to comment further. 

Gerace said that any discussions about a change in management of the Sullivan shelter were not formal, and that any change would have had to go through the city’s normal bid process. He said there were no reasons for another operator change.  

Zach Zears, the shelter director for 99 Plus 1 said the company has been working with the city to improve its policies, but that the rules it has for clients at the shelter are similar to those that were in place under Bean’s. 

He said there had been an increase in incidents in October, something he speculated could be tied to Permanent Fund dividend payments, but the uptick has gone back down since then. 

“Anytime you put 400 people with their closest friends in any sort of space, there are outbreaks of things that people don’t like,” he said. 

Reporters were not allowed to speak with clients inside the shelter this week because of a new city policy that cites privacy concerns.

Several clients interviewed outside of the arena said they hadn’t noticed any major changes. 

a person with a hat on poses for a photo outside a shelter
Jon Hanvey, a client at the Sullivan Arena shelter, says he’s seen several overdoses at the shelter, but he’s mostly happy with how things are being run. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Jon Hanvey, a client who arrived from Green Bay, Wis., just over a week ago, said he was surprised at the level of mental illness, but he said ear plugs have helped him get some sleep. 

“I’ve got to say they’re doing the best they can,” said Hanvey, who said he’s previously worked in homelessness services. 

Young, the mayor’s spokesperson, said there had been one recent death at the Sullivan. He said that there were five at the shelter during Bean’s 18-month tenure.

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.

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