As winter descends on Anchorage, Sullivan shelter replaces director

A woman with black hair and glasses poses for the camera
Shawn Hays on Nov. 10, 2021 (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

A private company running Alaska’s largest homeless shelter has replaced its director, less than two months after he started in his job. 

Shawn Hays replaced Zach Zears as director of the Sullivan Arena Shelter in Anchorage on Tuesday. The shelter sleeps over 400 people each night and was set up in March 2020 to allow clients to social distance. 

Leaders from 99 Plus 1 did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the staff changes at the Sullivan, and Zears did not respond to multiple phone calls. 

Hays previously oversaw the shelter’s operations as mass care lead while working for the city before she was fired last month. At the time, the city didn’t provide any reason for her firing and Hays said she briefly considered legal action against the city for wrongful termination. 

RELATED: Anchorages homelessness director resigns

This is the latest in what has been a series of leadership changes for the city’s management of homeless services and planning for the future of the shelter. Bob Doehl, director of development services was integral in setting up the Sullivan shelter last March. He announced he will resign in this month. John Morris, an anesthesiologist who served as the city’s homeless coordinator since July, resigned at the end of October.

Hays said she doesn’t think her experience with the city will be a problem in her new position even though she’ll be working closely with the city’s health department, which recently took oversight of the city’s shelters. 

“There are no hard feelings, there are no grudges,” she said. 

Hays comes to the shelter at a crucial time as temperatures around Anchorage have dropped, forcing many campers indoors. 

On Tuesday, the Sullivan exceeded its capacity of 420 by over 70 people, according to the city’s shelter dashboard. Hays said it’s not ideal to have people sleeping on mats and cots in the hallways, but the alternative is having people out on the street. 

“We don’t want people out there freezing to death. So how can we safely bring them in and keep them warm without, you know, overcrowding and creating a fire hazard? Or, you know, COVID?,” she said. 

Hays said the city promised to set up a warming tent outside the shelter soon, but she said that more shelter space is needed as soon as possible. In addition to the Sullivan Arena, the city oversees several hotel shelters that add hundreds of rooms to the city’s capacity. 

In her previous position with the city, Hays was part of a committee that selected 99 Plus 1 to take over the Sullivan from Bean’s Cafe, the nonprofit soup kitchen that had run the shelter since the pandemic began. 

In August, she raised concerns about Bean’s operations and billing, claiming that Bean’s owed the city over $260,000 after it overcounted the number of guests staying at the shelter, and billed for a security program it wasn’t providing. Bean’s CEO Lisa Sauder said it’s working with the city to resolve those complaints. Hays previously worked for Bean’s Cafe. 

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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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