With full shelter and temps falling, advocates raise alarm about risks to Anchorage’s unhoused population

Rows of portable cots and plastic totes fill the floor space of the Sullivan Arena shelter
Rows of portable cots and plastic totes fill the floor space of the Sullivan Arena shelter in Anchorage on Nov. 1, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

As cold temperatures descend on Anchorage and the city’s main shelter above capacity, advocates are raising the alarm about the risk to unsheltered residents. 

“People are gonna freeze to death this weekend,” said Jasmine Boyle, director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. 

The Sullivan has been over capacity for days. Shelter director Shawn Hays said that the shelter isn’t turning people away, no matter what time they arrive, but she’s worried that the crowding will deter people from coming. 

Under the current contract, the shelter can sleep up to 420 people. Over the last few days, it’s been sleeping over 450. Temperatures are expected to drop to single digits over the next few days and Hays said she expects even more people by Friday evening. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we hit over 500,” said Hays. 

One solution is an overflow warming tent outside the shelter. The city has promised to set one up, but as the sun set Friday, it hadn’t arrived.

Hays said staff are squeezing people into hallways on the upper levels of the arena.

“If somebody comes in after a curfew, we’ll put them on one of those slim mats, if we don’t have a cot or one of the thicker mats,” she said. “But we figure it’s better than being outside.”

Hays and Boyle have been advocating to the warming tent, which would increase capacity in the short term.

“They told me today that they are working on it, that it should be any time now. So I’m waiting,” said Hays, “I’m waiting for the city to follow through.”

Anchorage Health Director Joe Gerace said a press release would come out on Friday with information about overflow shelter options. As of 5 p.m., it had not been sent out. Corey Allen Young, a spokesperson for Mayor Dave Bronson, wrote in an email that there is no need for warming tents since everyone is still being allowed into the shelter.

Boyle disagreed. She said having extra space and communicating that there’s enough space available is crucial as cold temperatures set it.

“If you can’t go into Sullivan and there’s not a warming tent, what’s going to happen to those people?” said Boyle. “The fact that we don’t even have that stood up is insanity to me.”

This story has been updated with a comment from the mayor’s office.

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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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