With Fall and Winter approaching, the Sullivan Arena is filling up fast

Officials are considering options to increase capacity
Published: Aug. 24, 2020 at 9:39 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena has been at or near max capacity for much of August, with the average being 97% capacity. As Fall and Winter approach, city officials and the shelter’s operators are concerned there won’t be enough space

The shelter has seen an increase in new people, including Ezra Wilhelmsen, who said in the roughly two weeks he’s stayed at the shelter, he’s seen a lot of people helped; he’d even like to see it expand.

“This has been my refuge, in a sense, and I just want it to continue to succeed and grow and get better,” he said.

And expansion may be necessary. According to Cathleen McLaughlin, the Mass Shelter Operations Director, people are staying in the shelter longer.

“Some have been here with us since March,” she said. “But now the challenge is how do we get people out into homeless housing or some other stable housing arrangement?”

She said the high numbers spread resources thin, which means less attention can be given to individuals who may need extra help.

“It is very hard, especially when we’re at capacity to be able to address those mental health needs while serving other individuals that do not have that amount of acute need,” she said.

As far as expansion goes, Assembly members and the administration said at Wednesday’s Committee on Homelessness meeting that they’re considering their options. Assembly member John Weddleton questioned whether reopening the Ben Boeke Arena as a shelter was being considered.

“I think that that would certainly be in the conversation if there was additional capacity needs,” replied Chief of Staff Jason Bockenstedt.

At the meeting it was acknowledged that the Sullivan is likely to stay a mass shelter through the end of 2020, but once the national emergency declaration runs out, much of the shelter’s costs will no longer be automatically covered by FEMA. Bockenstedt said at the meeting roughly 75% of the costs are currently covered.

“At some point in the future, I think we all understand that is going to go away,” Bockentedt said. “And that is certainly going to be a challenge.”

Despite the Sullivan’s longer-than-expected time as a mass shelter, officials still contend that the intent is for it to be a temporary solution while a longer-term fix for the drop in available beds is in the works.

“We understand that this is a temporary shelter,” McLaughlin said. “That this was never intended to be a permanent shelter and we want to honor that.”

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