People experiencing homelessness describe dirty, chaotic scene in the city’s mass temporary shelter
City administration says that calls to 911 have gone down under the new contractor
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Hundreds of people experiencing homelessness have been living inside the Sullivan Arena for more than a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lisa Sauder, Bean’s Cafe CEO, says she’s heard horror stories about the conditions inside the city’s largest shelter since the for profit 99 Plus 1, a newly formed private company, was awarded the contract to operate the arena.
Last week the Anchorage Assembly approved $1.3 million for the operator and $5.59 for shelter services at the Sullivan. According to assembly member Meg Zaletel, the funding doesn’t name a specific contractor, although 99 Plus 1 has run the shelter since September.
Sauder says under 99 Plus 1, there are fewer rules within the shelter and conditions aren’t ideal.
Sauder said she had been working with Dr. John Morris, Anchorage’s former homeless coordinator, and that part of their talks were for Bean’s to take back the operations at the shelter Monday, Nov. 1.
“I guess that there were concerns on the part of the municipality, or at least on the part of Dr. Morris, about the current operator,” Sauder said.
That was before Morris abruptly resigned last week and Sauder says she’s heard nothing from the city since.
Monday morning, when the mayor’s spokesperson was asked if Bean’s was scheduled to take over operations at the shelter this week Corey Allen Young replied, “no.”
Morris, a local anesthesiologist, had been in charge of developing the city’s plans in response to homelessness. He was a member of the team of assembly members and members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration who worked together on a new plan to house those experiencing homelessness along with the help of a third-party facilitator.
Morris confirmed last Thursday he is no longer working for the city, but declined to comment further.
Sauder called Morris a “genius” and said his work to find long-term care for people experiencing homelessness could save lives.
The Anchorage Police Department searched its reports from Sept. 15-Oct. 31 and found at least one non-suspicious death at the arena on Oct. 24. Renee Oistad, a community relations specialist with the department, said there could be more, but she’d need more information to research.
“There is a possibility that there could have been deaths that APD either did not respond to or did not write a report for,” Oistad wrote in an email.
The Anchorage Fire Department said HIPAA rules prevent it from confirming the number of deaths it responds to, and where, if the department rendered aid.
The Anchorage Health Department also confirmed one death at the arena since the operator contract switched over.
Sauder says that during the 18 months Bean’s operated the shelter, there were five deaths. Anchorage Health Department Director Joe Gerace also confirmed that statistic last Thursday during a city worksession on mass care at the Sullivan Arena.
“We had five deaths under Bean’s inside the shelter,” Gerace told the worksession participants. “Three were overdose deaths.”
Sauder also expressed frustration about statement’s from the mayor’s office about the transition between Bean’s and 99 Plus 1.
Corey Allen Young, spokesperson for Mayor Dave Bronson, said via text on Sept. 17 that the organization had left the arena with no toilet paper and that staff had returned “faulty keys” that left incoming staff without access to supplies. Young said locks had to be cut off the portable toilets at the shelter.
Sauder says that’s not true.
“We would never do anything that would endanger our clients, make them uncomfortable,” Sauder said. “There’s a rumor out there now that when we left at midnight we turned on the lights and blared music. I was there personally. I can tell you that didn’t happen.”
Nonprofits, including Catholic Social Service and Bean’s Cafe, have managed homeless services in Anchorage for decades including providing meals and shelter. Bean’s is contracted now to provide 400 meals a day to the shelter.
Last Friday morning, clients who stayed at the Sullivan Arena described a scene inside, where people screamed at night. They said the shelter is plagued with bed bugs and lice.
“When you have to try to sleep, and dealing with drug addicts like that, it just, it gets tiring after awhile,” Marie Cleveland, a client at the Sullivan Arena, said outside of the shelter.
“Right now its everybody is putting up with everybody else and there’s a lot of drug addicts in there,” said Gill Jacko, who has been living in shelters in Anchorage on and off since 2003.
Monday morning, Gerace lead a pre-planned tour through the Sullivan for reporters. The shelter was orderly and calm.
Asked about reports from clients that the shelter is chaotic, with a bed bug and lice problem, Gerace said no one has ever reported problems to the health department.
“I’ve heard scuttlebutt but I’ve never witnessed it,” Gerace said. “When there has been an incident, when I have been here, staff was quick. I was here one time when a fight broke out they were quick to address it.”
Gerace also showed reporters medical aid facilities and says the shelter is now providing written rules for the clients.
He also says calls to 911 have gone down under 99 Plus 1.
During last Thursday’s worksession on the mass care at the Sullivan Arena on Oct. 28, Gerace filled in for Morris after his resignation was discovered and spoke to worksession members about conditions at the arena.
“I think it might be helpful, Mr. Gerace, if you could pick up with what Dr. Morris had planned to do in terms of discussing the reports out of the Sullivan and the administration’s action plan to address them,” Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said at the meeting. “Because I think a number of folks have heard things, and it would be helpful to hear from you first.”
Gerace spoke about contract compliance and how the city is working to make the shelter and the area outside of it safer. Specifically, he referenced statistics from the time period of the Bean’s Cafe contract.
“And so from April of 2020 to June of (2021), so 14 months, we had 1,536 calls for service — 460 of them required the agencies to write reports,” he said.
“So the assumption or the premise that some of this is new, is not,” Gerace continued.
He clarified that the 1,536 calls for service were for police. During that same time period the Anchorage Fire Department went to the arena 562 times, which resulted in 77 transports, Gerace said during the meeting.
Sauder says she remains concerned about the people staying at the shelter while 99 Plus 1 continues to run the shelter.
“I was worried for the safety of our clients, you know, I think there was a reason in the RFP (request for proposal) that they were requiring three years experience in running a shelter,” Sauder said. “For whatever reason the municipality decided to wave that.”
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