An abrupt transition from the contractor running Anchorage’s largest homeless shelter on Thursday left its residents shaken and the new contractor scrambled to provide basic services that day.
Anchorage announced earlier this week that 99 Plus 1, a local for-profit company formed a year ago, would resume operations at the Sullivan Arena emergency shelter on Thursday. Bean’s Cafe, a longtime soup kitchen in Anchorage, had operated the emergency shelter since March 2020 under a sole-source contract with the city.
The change took place around midnight. During the transition process, the town and Bean’s Cafe both expressed frustrations with each other. 99 Plus 1 also raised concerns regarding the transition with Bean’s.
Meanwhile, residents woke up Thursday morning in a shelter in turmoil.
Darrel Smith, who said he stayed at the shelter for about a month and a half, woke up to find he did not have access to clean water.
The water jugs that were usually left available to customers were gone, Smith said.
Almost everything happened with Bean’s when it came out – most of the equipment, supplies, beds for sleeping and even posters on the walls. (The contract with Bean’s ended Thursday; the nonprofit said it had to withdraw all of its materials due to the city’s new contract.) In the weeks leading up to the transition, a nursing clinic health facility at Sullivan Arena has been closed, ending the availability of COVID-19 testing. 99 Plus 1 may not immediately deliver potentially life-saving doses of Narcan to those at risk of overdosing. And by Thursday, the company had only been able to hire the bare minimum of employees, enough to carry it through to Sunday.
Shortly after 9 a.m., Bean’s Cafe staff arrived and began to dismantle the hundreds of green cots that lined the arena floor.
Workers at 99 Plus 1 and the city bagged the piles of personal belongings next to the cots, messing the items into black trash bags. They placed them in new yellow and red top storage bins provided by the city, marking each bin with the bed number.
Rubbish was strewn on the ground. Vomit pooled next to a trash can in a corner.
A lone man slept on the only remaining bed for hours after the other beds were washed away,
Zachary Zears, the new on-site manager of the shelter with 99 Plus 1, said Thursday morning he had not slept for 27 hours. He stood in the lower entrance of the arena, disheveled, ordering people to clean up and move the cots and trying to answer their questions.
He said he intended to rebuild the mass-care shelter at Sullivan and make it better than before.
Until the first week of September, the Sullivan had a makeshift health clinic in the mezzanine upstairs of the arena.
It offered rotating medical and behavioral health services from local hospitals like Providence Alaska Medical Center and other providers. Some offered medically assisted treatment for drug addiction. Others have offered COVID-19 testing.
Lisa Sauder, CEO of Bean’s Cafe, said healthcare providers have closed the clinic due to uncertainty over Sullivan Arena’s future as a safe haven.
“They felt Sullivan was going to close on September 15th. And that, combined with staff shortages, they decided to step down in early September. It’s such a shame because it was such a great collaboration, ”Sauder said.
Now, there is no on-site testing for COVID-19 at the Sullivan Arena shelter, which the city lifted in response to the pandemic last year. The pandemic has increased the need for shelter in Anchorage and made it impossible to maintain the old model of overcrowded private facility shelters.
Running another clinic and ensuring customers have easy access to COVID-19 testing is one of Zears’ top priorities, he said.
Still, he said on Thursday there was a long way to go and a long way to go. Zears plans to build it day by day, he said.
Edwin Vega, a client of the shelter, approached Zears, asking him when they would open access to the showers and the laundry room. Those who stay at the shelter and also work are especially in need of access, Vega said.
“Today it was all about beds, security and relationships,” Zears said. “Tomorrow will be the showers. Saturday will be devoted to laundry.
Occasionally, former Bean’s Cafe employees arrived at the shelter on Thursday, requesting applications. The association laid off workers when it lost the contract at Sullivan.
Zears told two women they could start that day at 3 p.m. if they return with ID, Social Security number and a completed application.
The 99 Plus 1 contract with the city requires it to provide a staff-to-client ratio of 1 to 30, managers and administrators not included. Zears said it has the bare minimum and enough staff to provide security until Sunday.
They had planned to recruit more staff at Bean’s Cafe before the transition. But the association asked them not to recruit staff directly on the spot.
When asked if 99 Plus 1 staff would wear Narcan, a life-saving opioid overdose drug, Zears said he was unsure for liability reasons and called the lawyer for the company to ask him.
The answer? Zears can only train staff in the use of Narcan if the city explicitly instructs 99 Plus 1 to do so.
Zears began seeking access to Narcan on Thursday.
Overdoses occur every week at the Sullivan Arena, Sauder said, and staff at Bean’s Cafe have transported Narcan for this reason.
Smith, in his one-and-a-half-month stay at the Sullivan, said he had already seen two deaths.
Smith stood nearby as the workers removed the cots. With a group of friends, he watched and waited for a new city-issued trash can to put his things away. Some of the shelter’s clients were sitting on the floor against the walls, waiting with piles of clothes, bags and other items. A few found chairs to sit and wait.
Most of the transition rumors circulating among the approximately 390 people using the shelter each day had not come true, Smith said – they had not been kicked out of Sullivan Arena for the day, and hot meals still arrived , soothing their fears that they will not be fed for a few days.
Smith wondered aloud if he would get a new cot that day and if he would be able to access his things.
As of 5 p.m. Thursday, the new cots – aluminum and green fabric cots from REI – were still stacked in boxes, not yet installed.
The city has yet to explain why 99 Plus 1 won the contract during the bidding process or why the transition from Bean’s Cafe to the new contractor went without an organized handover.
The mayor’s office had yet to respond to questions on Thursday about the timing of the bidding process, which began just a month before Bean’s Cafe’s contract expired.
On Tuesday, the Assembly approved a request from the mayor’s office to speed up the contract, so that 99 Plus 1 can take over on Thursday.
Bean’s Cafe still provides food there until Sunday.
“We want everyone to be well taken care of and we make sure everyone has food and shelter,” Sauder said.
The city launched a request for an emergency supply this week to fill the void in foodservice, which has gone to Bean’s, until the longer-term food contract begins in a few days.
The city did not respond to questions Thursday night about why it hadn’t put a food plan in place before that contract expired, or why clean water was not available at the shelter for most of Thursday, with the exception of a water fountain.
At around 5 p.m., staff brought jugs of water into the Sullivan Arena.
Corey Allen Young, spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said by text message that the way Bean’s Cafe left the shelter was a “bad way to leave” and said they left the place “badly trashed” .
Bean left him without toilet paper and the locks on the portable toilets had to be cut Thursday morning, and they returned the keys to faulty, so the new supplier was unable to access some supplies, Young said.
Sauder said Bean’s Cafe had nothing to do with portable toilets, as they are operated under a different contract with the port-a-potty company. She also said Bean had to demobilize the shelter.
“We had to remove all of our materials,” Sauder said. “They made it clear in the RFP that they provide the cots, the bins, the locks for the bins – all of those things. We therefore withdrew all of our goods that we had purchased. And I don’t know what else we should have done in this situation.
Daily News photojournalist Loren Holmes helped report this story.