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Anchorage Ends Sleep-Off Center’s Contract, Creating Service Uncertainty

The city’s Health Department has ended its longtime sleep-off center contract with private security firm Securitas after safety and reliability concerns. But the costly replacement is just temporary, leaving the medical service’s future uncertain.

The Anchorage, Alaska, Health Department has terminated a longtime contract with a company that operated the city's sleep-off center and an associated van service but came under fire this year over safety and reliability issues.

Securitas, a private security firm, has operated the Anchorage Safety Patrol and Safety Center since 2016 under a roughly $2 million annual contract to care for intoxicated or otherwise incapacitated and vulnerable people found on city streets and transport them to the center.

Another provider, SALA Medical, will take over next week as municipal officials search for a permanent solution, an Anchorage Health Department spokeswoman told the Daily News this week. Health officials say the temporary contract will cost $2.8 million over a 6-month period between now and March — roughly $800,000 more than what they paid Securitas for an entire year of service.

Anchorage Safety Patrol responds to roughly 1,000 calls per month to check on people, many of whom are experiencing homelessness, using substances or experiencing mental health or medical issues. Medical technicians transport people found to need assistance in vans to the sleep-off center, where they are held until they're sober enough to release.

City officials this week cited Securitas' inability to provide consistent van services and concerns for patient safety as factors in their decision to terminate the contract. That decision was not publicly announced.

But concerns about the company's performance have been mounting for months, starting with a report that surfaced in December involving a man who said he saw a Safety Patrol employee push an inebriated man out of the sleep-off center in a wheelchair and dump him in the snow.

Securitas now faces several other serious accusations including an alleged sexual assault that's the subject of one of three civil lawsuits filed against the company.

The transition to a new sleep-off center provider comes as the city struggles to address growing numbers of people living outside.

The Sullivan Arena closed in spring, sending hundreds of unhoused people to camp alongside city streets and greenbelts. The city has had few available low-barrier shelter beds since it closed. In the aftermath, Anchorage has also experienced a record number of outdoor deaths involving people believed to be homeless.

The rush to cut ties with Securitas came to a head recently as officials grew increasingly concerned about the company's treatment of an already vulnerable population.

By June, the city had withheld five months of payment from Securitas due to what health officials called a precipitous drop in service that increased the demand on firefighters and police. The vans operated as part of their contract were frequently out of service, forcing the Anchorage Fire Department to respond to more than 3,600 of those calls and increasing the load on police and hospitals.

Securitas cited short staffing as the reason for providing inconsistent van services this year.

The health department worked with Securitas for months to bring them back into compliance with the contract, but there has been little improvement, department spokeswoman Michelle Fehribach said this week.

In July, the department abruptly announced they would almost immediately terminate Securitas' contract, but walked back the decision after providers said it would overwhelm the rest of the city's emergency services. Meanwhile, the number of lawsuits related to the Anchorage Safety Patrol and Safety Center services was growing, with the most recent filing earlier this month by a current Securitas manager.

The civil lawsuits, all filed in Anchorage Superior Court, are associated with three separate claims:

—In January 2022, Carl McGeary was transported by safety patrol to the sleep-off center after he was punched outside a downtown bar, police wrote in criminal charges filed against the man accused of assaulting him. The business owner who reviewed the surveillance footage of the assault said at the time that McGeary was conscious but unable to walk. By the time he made it to the safety center he was unresponsive, police said. He died in the hospital four days later. His family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in June 2022.

—A woman who was brought to the Anchorage Safety Center in July 2021 said she was sexually assaulted by a Securitas employee working at the center, according to the lawsuit she filed at the end of June. Fehribach said this was likely the incident Acting Health Department Director Kimberly Rash vaguely referenced during an emergency meeting that was a catalyst for the municipality seeking to end the Securitas contract.

—Dwight Greene, a Securitas operations manager, filed a lawsuit two weeks ago seeking payment for what he alleges is unpaid overtime. Greene was hired in May and has not been paid for overtime, according to the lawsuit. It claims he was hired at an hourly wage and then told he would work for salary once the position began, and work 12-hour shifts, five days a week.

Securitas has struggled to train staff and was "unable to produce any trainings rosters when requested by AHD," Rash wrote in an email sent to three Assembly members this week addressing concerns about the interim contract.

Securitas is a multinational, multibillion-dollar private security firm with more than 400 branch locations in the United States. A representative for Securitas said in an email Thursday that the company "does not comment on contracts or litigation."

The health department began soliciting bids for a permanent contractor to replace Securitas in August, 11 days after walking back the contract termination. They also began searching for a temporary fix.

The department "sent out the policies and procedures, scope of work, and a list of questions to a number of companies in the security and EMS fields," Fehribach said in an email Thursday. Three companies responded to the request, although one proposal did not include a cost estimate, she said.

SALA Medical was selected for an interim contract over another company that only had security experience and had not worked closely with the population served by the safety patrol, Fehribach said.

SALA Medical worked with the municipality during the COVID-19 pandemic and provided medical screening services for people experiencing homelessness, she said. The company focuses in remote and mobile health care services.

"SALA already has a fully staffed and trained and certified staff that they're basically ready to deploy," Fehribach said.

The contract was not announced during the Assembly's Health Policy Committee meeting earlier this month, which had initially raised concern for some Assembly members. In an email to three members, Rash said the paperwork had not been finalized by the Sept. 6 meeting and Securitas had not yet been notified their contract would end.

The $2.8 million interim contract with SALA Medical began last week and goes until March, with options to extend services for several more months, Fehribach said. The contract with Securitas likely remained flat since 2016 because of municipal budget constraints, she said.

"I think there's a recognition that whoever has the contract does need to have a larger contract, just based on cost of materials, cost of labor, being able to be a competitive employer," Fehribach said. "So there is an effort to try, just in general, to have the contract amount be a bit more."

The funding for SALA Medical's services is coming from residual funds from Securitas' current contract and the department's vacancy savings from jobs that have not been filled, she said.

Proposals to provide long-term services were due this week. It generally takes about three to four months to select a contractor, Fehribach said. It's likely the new contract will cost more, potentially double the amount Securitas was paid, she said.

SALA Medical staff began shadowing Securitas employees last week and will continue to do so until Sept. 30, when Securitas will stop providing services and SALA Medical will take over.

The department will need to make a request to the Anchorage Assembly if additional funds are needed for the new contract.

Karen Bronga, who co-chairs the Assembly Health Policy Committee, said Friday that she feels hopeful about the upcoming transition.

Bronga said she thinks it's appropriate that the city may have to pay more than they have for the safety patrol and center contract.

"I think it's kind of one of these you get what you pay for, and it certainly is cheaper than having to have our frontline responders dealing with situations of public inebriation — it's a real drain," she said. "I don't know what the next step is but we're probably going to have to pay more to get good quality."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported there is no low-barrier shelter in Anchorage. Brother Francis Shelter is currently operating as a low-barrier facility. (c)2023 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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