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‘I’d rather sleep outside’: People experiencing homelessness talk about life inside the Sullivan Arena

Marie Cleveland (right), who experiences homelessness, relaxes outside the Sullivan Arena in...
Marie Cleveland (right), who experiences homelessness, relaxes outside the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, Alaska with a friend.(Rebecca Palsha)
Published: Oct. 29, 2021 at 3:55 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As the temperatures crept closer to the low 30s, the sun started to rise outside the Sullivan Arena on Friday. The mountains, topped with new snow, seemed to glow.

Marie Cleveland and a friend left the mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena to sit outside.

“Stay out of my sunshine,” Cleveland told another man who also had spent the night inside the arena. It has been used for months now to house around 400 people experiencing homelessness.

“It’s not good at all,” Gil Jacko said about staying in the Sullivan Arena.

“At least people will be warm,” Cleveland said.

Friday morning she said she was tired after listening to people yell all night.

“When you have to try to sleep, and dealing with drug addicts like that, it just, it gets tiring after awhile,” Cleveland said.

Jacko wheeled off on his bike for the wooded trails.

“I was going to check out the trails and see what kind of mischief they got going on,” Jacko said.

The funding to continue emergency shelter operations at the arena was extended Thursday night by the Anchorage Assembly through December.

The assembly approved $1.3 million for the operator and $5.59 for services at the Sullivan. According to assembly member Meg Zaletel, the funding doesn’t name a specific contractor. It had been run by Bean’s Cafe and now is being operated by 99 Plus 1.

The general manager of 99 Plus 1, Jason Cates, declined to comment.

“The plan is to continue to pass this item tonight so that we can earnestly begin the work tomorrow on the next steps,” Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said Thursday night before the vote, “which are looking more closely and identifying specific properties and populations and moving forward with demobilizing the Sullivan Arena as a mass care center.”

How to help the unhoused people of Anchorage has been an ongoing struggle for years and a major issue Mayor Dave Bronson campaigned on, saying he’d find a solution.

Despite his homeless coordinator Dr. John Morris resigning this week, Bronson’s administration says he remains committed to helping the homeless.

“The focus and mission remains the same in helping our city’s most vulnerable get the compassionate care and resources they need,” spokesperson Corey Allen young said via email. “That includes working with the Anchorage Assembly with the strategy that involves housing, transitional housing, supportive housing, treatment, and navigation centers.”

The plan now looks like multiple, smaller shelters for specific populations. A team made up of members of the assembly and members of the administration worked for weeks with a third-party facilitator to come up with a new plan to transition people out of the Sullivan Arena and provide for long-term housing for the city’s homeless population. That plan was unveiled earlier this month.

“It’s really difficult to say if there’s going be any direct change at this time because of a personnel change on the side of the administration,” Constant said Thursday afternoon.

Jacko, who says he’s been experiencing homelessness off and on since 2003, said he’s been living in the Sullivan since it opened in response to the pandemic. He says the city needs a new plan.

Cleveland agrees.

“I’d rather sleep outside,” she said.

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