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Joaqlin Estus

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Circumstances have been dire this month for some 200 people who were taken on July 1 to an Anchorage campground after a municipal homeless shelter closed. Last week the Anchorage Daily News quoted advocates and others who called conditions at the city-owned Centennial Campground “dangerous,” “deplorable,” and “abysmal.”

Wednesday, a police officer and a shooter were injured in a shootout. Michael Baker was camped in his vehicle nearby.

“That gunfire, this close. This is not good,” Baker told the Anchorage Daily News. “That’s the thing I thought about. ‘Man, what if the bullets start flying over here?’”

Last week one of several drug overdoses ended in death. Four bears were killed after entering tents. A disabled woman fell and lay bleeding from her head until a fellow camper noticed her. Park employees and service organizations scrambled to get people fed and sheltered in tents from a chilling rain.

Alaska’s largest city has been grappling with homelessness for decades. Panhandlers with cardboard signs beg at major intersections. People set up illegal camps in parks and greenbelts. They sleep on sidewalks, in doorways, and alleys. Downtown merchants complain of human waste, litter, and tourists being harassed for handouts. Worst of all, every winter several homeless people die in the cold.

HOMELESS AK - Zachary Barnett visits Michele Middlemist at the Centennial campgrounds in Anchorage, Alaska, July 18, 2022 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, ICT).

Last year COVID-relief funds covered costs for a 500-person capacity shelter in midtown Anchorage. When the COVID money ran out, the municipality closed the shelter with little notice, loaded up buses and dropped people off at Centennial Campground on July 1. Workers and volunteers handed out tents and sleeping bags.

While Alaska Natives make up 15.7 percent of the Anchorage population, almost half of people in Anchorage living without housing are Native. People receiving mental health services are also overrepresented, say officials.

On Monday, Marlita Elgamal was strolling through Centennial campground with a friend. Elgamal said she was “Eskimo and Indian.” She said she’d probably be camping there or at a homeless shelter herself if she wasn’t part of a Catholic Social Services program that subsidizes rent for a year. She and John Peterson both became homeless when they ended up jobless and couldn’t get back on their feet.

Peterson said he stayed at the Sullivan Arena for six months. There, he said, Alaska Natives were targets of harassment. “I saw bullies kick them out of line so they didn’t get to eat.” The violence and disrespect were “horrible,” he said.

He expects violence will be a problem some nights at the campground too, but “the fact that that place (the shelter) is gone is actually good.” The people running the place, “had a good heart but when you put 500 people together at night and they lack sleep (due to noise and disruptions), you’re going to have issues.”

Ephim Kamluck, Jr, Alutiiq, agrees the campground is better than the arena was. The former shelter was “a bad place because I couldn’t sleep with my honey,” he said. “They had a men’s section and a women’s section. We couldn’t sleep together. But now we’re here, we can sleep together in our own tent,” said Kamluck.

HOMELESS AK - Mental health advocate Roger Branson at left with other volunteers handing out coffee, snacks, supplies for homeless at Centennial campground in Anchorage, Alaska. July 18, 2022 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, ICT)

He said they couldn’t close the entrance to their tent due to a broken zipper and the tarp they draped over it didn’t keep out all the rain. “It rained lots of days but now the sun finally came out and I forgot all about them bad feelings about the rain.” He said getting wet did get them down, “but we went into our camp and we’d warm up under the blankets.”

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He showed off the fire pit and grill at their site where they could cook or heat up meals. The campground also has showers, portable toilets, and daily trash pickup.

His partner Stephanie George, Yup’ik, said she wished they had a bigger tent and more tarp. But she too was grateful she and Kamluck have their own place.

Roger Branson serves on several boards of organizations dealing with the issue of homelessness. He’s wearing a different hat at the campground, though, due to liability concerns. Monday he said, “I’m just doing this on my own,” but he will soon be working as part of a larger coordinated effort.

He’s been accepting donations of tents, sleeping bags, coffee, snacks, warm clothes, and airline miles and doling them out to people at the campground. He says the biggest donation to date was 500,000 airline miles donated by a rock band. That will help a lot of people get back home to their families, he said.

Other ways people can help? One-on-one.

“To the degree that they’re comfortable and feel safe, coming in here and bumping elbows and getting to know folks and finding ways to meet the individual needs in ways that make sense to the individual and to the donor, that would be good. Just do it. Just do it,” Branson said.

Standing in front of two folding tables with a coffee urn, Krispy Kreme donuts, and donated spare clothing, Branson said, “I really appreciate the community I’m a part of. We’ve really got some caring people in this community.”

HOMELESS AK - Municipal workers clean up an abandoned campsite at Centennial Campground, a temporary campground for homeless people in Anchorage, AK. July 18, 2022 (Photo by Joaqlin Estus, ICT).

Meanwhile, the mayor has washed his hands of it. After closing the shelter, he left the problems to nonprofit and charitable institutions. He had vetoed $2.8 million to house homeless people saying, “my veto is strictly because of where we are appropriating those funds from. We can not spend money in the name of COVID-19 response and then try to get FEMA reimbursement if there is no state or local public health emergency,” said Mayor Dave Bronson.

He urged Assembly members to instead take $2.8 million out of an alcohol sales tax fund. The assembly had allocated those funds for prevention of alcohol abuse, violence response, and crisis intervention, a measure the mayor also vetoed.

Tuesday the Salvation Army stepped up to begin coordinating the activities of a range of non-profit, charitable, and grass-roots organizations and volunteers that are handling meals, case management, donations, and supplies.

Some of the campers say it’s a relief to be in a campground instead of camping illegally around town, only to get kicked out and have their camps torn down. A couple of people said with security guards on duty and police patrolling the campground, they feel safer than when living on the streets.

Salvation Army Captain Kevin Pope said there have been challenges, but “to me it gets better every day and we are hearing those same comments from folks that are there, that they've appreciated being there. But our message for them is ‘I'm glad and you know, that's our goal, but our goal ultimately is to help you transition from here into something permanent.’”

The arrangement at the campground ends Sept. 30.

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