A ham and cheese sandwich is what Theodore Terenty Merculief craves. It’s about 2 p.m. – a little late for lunch, but too early for dinner. He is in a makeshift lounge at the Mass Emergency Shelter at Sullivan Arena, watching daytime programming on a large TV.
Just outside the lounge is a concession stand. Merculief walks over and asks for a snack. The employee behind the counter fills his order and hands over a sandwich in a paper tray made to hold French fries. If Merculief gets hungry again, he can come back for another ham and cheese sandwich or choose from something else on the day’s menu.
“This place is way, way better,” said Merculief, who has experienced homelessness on and off throughout his adult life. “And this ham and cheese sandwich is awesome.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping across the country in early 2020, Alaskans were not immune to its effects. While the infection rate here was one of the lowest compared to the other states, it was still a public health crisis. For those without homes in which they could stay socially distanced, the risks were high and options few.
That’s how the Sullivan Arena shelter came to be. It is a success amid a devastating pandemic, attracting national attention for its ability to keep infection rates low in a high-risk population.
Providence Health & Services Alaska is one of the many agencies that stepped in to help make it happen.
Nathan Johnson, regional director of Community Health Investment at Providence, said in 2020 Providence earmarked $3 million to help area nonprofit programs provide wraparound services and support, including shelter, for persons experiencing homelessness in Anchorage. Part of their mission is to help the poor and vulnerable.
Two of those providers are Bean’s Cafe and Catholic Social Services. During the pandemic, Catholic Social Services’ Brother Francis Shelter has housed a smaller population of people with the most serious injuries or illnesses that make mobility a challenge. Bean’s Cafe has shifted its focus to the masses, housing up to 400 clients in widely spaced cots spread throughout the vast arena, as well as overseeing housing at the Aviator Hotel, which currently sleeps 155 people. There are also two warming tents in the parking lot, ensuring nobody is left without a warm place to be. These tents see 50- 85 individuals per night.
“Our five-year $15 million commitment to homelessness is exemplified here,” Johnson said, standing inside the entry to the shelter.
“If we can’t address the basic needs of food and shelter, it’s hard to move on to anything else,” said Lisa Sauder, chief executive officer of Bean’s Cafe. That’s why one of the first and most important aspects of the shelter involved food.
Because feeding people in large groups posed a health risk, Bean’s configured a meals-on-demand setup. They quickly saw its success.
“We’ve shifted our entire model of food safety,” she said. “We have four or five different meal options, regardless of time of day. Cheerios at 10 p.m.? Go do it. Turkey and gravy at 10 a.m.? Go do it.”
A ham and cheese sandwich for Merculief at 2p.m.? That works, too.
Not only does this work from a health standpoint, Sauder said, but it also returns to clients just a small amount of control and dignity to those who are most often forced to take what they’re given, whether they like it or not, or do without.
“I don’t see us ever going back to the soup-kitchen line with whatever is served that day is what you get,” she said. “Now people can make their own choices and that’s no small thing.”
Shelter, too, is much improved under the temporary setup at Sullivan, she added. In neat rows covering the massive arena floor, cots are spaced at least six feet apart, and clients are provided a large tote, like a footlocker, in which to store their belongings. Masks are required and social distancing is enforced.
A separate wing is available for females, couples and LBGTQ clients, as well as those will special needs. In another section of the arena is the Navigation Hub, a place to help connect clients with services they might need – from getting help filling out forms, applying for assistance or looking for jobs.
“Our goal is ‘Shelter to Success,’ we want people back on their own, working a job and in their own home,” said Diana Arthur, development and communications director for Bean’s. “It’s really unfortunate we’ve had this pandemic, but we are touching more lives now than we ever have been able to before.”
Sauder said she knows the Sullivan Arena is only a temporary fix, but in the months since opening, it has allowed for great ideas to blossom – giving her renewed hope for making positive changes to this marginalized population.
“It really forced our team to evaluate how we do business,” she said. “Thanks to the ongoing community support, and with partners like Providence, we have been able to do this.”