From survival mode to stable home

The pandemic upended a shelter system designed to keep Alaskans experiencing homelessness safe — in normal times. Suddenly, sleeping mattress-to-mattress wasn’t just a discomfort but a danger. Shelter managers and municipal leaders quickly reshaped operations and focused on programs to get people quickly housed. The shelter experience is changing too. At Anchorage’s temporary mass shelter, people now sleep on cots and are spread out. Individuals choose when and what to eat and have a spot for personal belongings. Little things help those who have lost so much regain dignity and find a path forward.

Pre-pandemic, Brother Francis Shelter, Anchorage’s main shelter, regularly reached its 240-person capacity with dozens of overflow guests across the parking lot at Bean’s Café, best known for feeding the hungry. Hundreds of people lined up daily to sleep indoors side by side.

That had to change. Shelters, used to operating on thin margins without much government help, were boosted with federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Over a single weekend in March 2020, hundreds of people moved to new, temporary shelters in Anchorage ice arenas, big enough to space out. Masks, temperature checks, tests and finally vaccines added protection. Despite the communal living, few shelter residents became ill with COVID.

With the pandemic’s second punch of economic loss, more people are in crisis. The total in Anchorage shelters and managed hotel sites hovers around 800 to 900 people, every day. About 400 are at the Sullivan Arena temporary shelter run by Bean’s Café. While a third leave every month, others come in. All get tailored support, Bean’s CEO Lisa Sauder said. “We are asking every single client: ‘What can we do for you?’ What do you need, to not be here?’ ” At the Sullivan’s resource hub, Bean’s, Catholic Social Services, Cook Inlet Tribal Council, U.S. Veterans Affairs and many other partners help clients find housing, look for jobs, replace lost IDs, and connect with treatment. Guests can get medical help and prescriptions at an on-site clinic.

Brother Francis Shelter, now capped at 72 guests, is mainly serving the elderly and those with severe medical issues. The smaller size allows relationships to deepen between staff and guests, says Robin Dempsey, chief program officer for Catholic Social Services, which runs Brother Francis. First Fridays feature educational talks about current issues, like the vaccine. Guests take yoga classes. Trust builds. And clients begin to move forward. From July 2020 through March 2021, Catholic Social Services helped 439 individuals go from homeless to housed. A Foundation grant provided support. One medically fragile man is now on the list for a kidney transplant. When he was homeless, he was ineligible, said Karlo Mercene, Catholic Social Services program director for homeless family services.

Leaders expect to phase out the Sullivan in the fall. The system changed fast to a new model that gives residents more choices, Sauder said.

“Part of it was the safety factor with COVID, but a lot of it was giving people back that dignity, respect and control.”