What's killing the homeless in Anchorage?

August 22, 2009 

A month before Eugene Williams died in his sleeping bag in the East Anchorage woods, he had a place of his own with cable, a little kitchen and a landlady who did his laundry and gave him rides.

After she told him he couldn't bring his drinking buddies around anymore, he left the security of his $495-a-month room for life outdoors. On July 7, he asked his landlady to drop him off at the Cook Inlet Tribal Council building near the intersection of Bragaw Street and DeBarr Road. He made a little camp nearby.

His body was found there Aug. 9 -- an empty liquor bottle on the ground beside him and prescription medication in his backpack.

Williams was the 10th person familiar with life on Anchorage streets to die outdoors this spring and summer, most in parks and woods. Two more soon followed. Seven of the 12 were Alaska Native. The oldest was Williams, who was 69; the youngest was Elouise Okakok, just 25 and the only woman among the dead.

The string of homeless deaths has alarmed street people, their advocates and the general public. It's unusual for so many to die outdoors in Anchorage during good weather.

What's killing Anchorage's homeless?

For some, police say it's pretty clear what happened. The first, Stanley Ivey, died from hypothermia, they say. His body was found in the Chester Creek greenbelt May 7 during spring cleanup; while the days were warm, the temperatures dipped below freezing at night in that part of town.

James Lockery was stomped and beaten to death, police say. Douglas Friday was hit by a truck. Danny Wright drowned in Campbell Creek.

Wright had been drinking. A lot.

The common thread is a well-known suspect: alcohol. Four died, at least in part, because of the ravages of hard drinking; the number may grow when all the investigations are complete.

"I think the tragic truth is that in most of the cases, their lifestyle -- they are pretty much killing themselves through their lifestyle and their choices," said Sgt. Slawomir Markiewicz, head of the Anchorage Police Department homicide unit.

The city's homeless alcoholics are struggling with a complicated disease and can't see the consequences of their actions, said Melinda Freemon, director of the Homeward Bound residential program that helps them get off the streets. Many are in emotional tatters. They can't think beyond getting the next bottle of booze, the next meal, a place to camp.

Freemon says they are dying because of the "long-term health effects of chronic alcoholism ... the cumulative effect of years of living in unsafe conditions."

Anchorage, she said, is sorely lacking in help. People must wait months for a treatment bed. The number of detox spots in the area has dropped from 35 to 10.

"You recognize they are fighting with demons that perhaps none of us see or know or understand," said police Lt. Dave Parker.

RUMORS ON THE STREET

Some people have trouble with that answer. The police have heard the conspiracy theories, that maybe a serial murderer is targeting Anchorage's homeless. But Markiewicz and others say there's no evidence of anything like that.

"We are police officers and we are suspicious by nature," the sergeant said. "Especially if you are in homicide, you don't take things at face value. You examine things."

Asked about the possibility of something sinister happening, Dr. Katherine Raven, the state's new chief medical examiner, said "there's no indication of that whatsoever."

The detective who has taken the lead on most of the homeless death investigations also is new in his job, having started in homicide at the end of April, just days before the string of deaths began. But detective Milton Jakeway's experience stretches back decades, to patrol and, before that, criminal investigations in the Army.

Jakeway and other detectives go to homeless camps. They interview homeless people. They try to figure out how the dead people spent their last days, who they were with, what they did. There have been autopsies for all but the first two deaths, toxicology tests for all. An investigator with the medical examiner's office went to every scene too.

Still, it can be a challenge.

Raven, who started work June 1, heard about the rash of homeless deaths right away. And she put in place new policies: autopsies of anyone who dies outdoors, and personal contact between her office and the families. Before she started, the office was down to one pathologist.

Out on the street, the homeless have their own theories. Some talk about "a helping hand."

"From what I was hearing when I was on the streets, there was a person, a guy, offering people open vodka and having turpentine in there, you know, some kind of poison," said Arlene Oscar, 46, who is now at Homeward Bound. A friend told her, don't accept any open bottle from someone you don't know. Don't scrounge around for almost-empties on the street, either.

"I'm not going to lie. I did that," Oscar said. But not this summer.

The police said they hadn't heard the turpentine theory but doubt it could be true. It would taste bad and it would burn, really burn, going down.

Raven, who has performed 4,000 autopsies in her career, said she's never seen a case of death by turpentine but believes there would be physical signs, including smell and damage to the esophagus or stomach.

Homeless deaths are common, she said. She's seen many in previous jobs in Reno and in Seattle. There, illegal drugs were more often a factor but otherwise the deaths are not much different, she said.

"It's a huge population out there that's dying before they should."

NO SIGN OF POISON

Toxicology tests were done on all the Anchorage homeless who died this spring and summer to look for alcohol and various drugs including prescription painkillers, over-the-counter medication such as Benadryl and common drugs of abuse like cocaine. In a number of the cases, expanded tests looked for hundreds of medications, Raven said.

But even the expanded tests don't routinely look for poisons, because there are so many and there was no reason to go down that path. A poisoned victim would likely writhe in pain or vomit. An autopsy would find internal irritation or hemorrhaging. Needle marks might be found. And nothing like that has turned up, Raven said.

Anyway, if someone were poisoning the homeless, it's likely that not all would die and that some would be showing up sick in emergency rooms, Parker said. That's not happening either.

The blood and other samples will be saved for two years in case new information points to the need for further tests, Raven said.

Still, the testing helps explain some of the deaths. Results are in hand for eight, and of those, all but two were above the .08 legal limit for driving. The man with the lowest level, .047, also was taking a prescription psychiatric medicine that police say interacted dangerously with the alcohol.

Four had a blood-alcohol content of .34 or higher, more than four times the legal limit although not necessarily lethal. One was .461, enough to kill most people, according to the medical examiner's office.

Both the police and the medical examiner say they couldn't specify who had what level because of privacy rules.

Still, police acknowledge that one of those with a high level was Wright. He was last seen passed out on an observation platform above Campbell Creek. When he was found dead in the water, he had a cut on his head. Maybe he rolled off and hit his head. Maybe someone hit him. But no one heard any fighting and there was no sign of a struggle, Markiewicz said. His death has been ruled an accidental drowning.

Some of those who died started drinking very young, at age 12 or 14, according to officials at Cook Inlet Tribal Council, where staff knew about half of those who died. Some went through detox and even residential treatment. But recovery is complicated and fraught with relapse. Some had brain injuries from long-ago vehicle crashes and were especially hard to help. A number of those who died had amassed criminal records, largely for petty stuff.

For chronic alcoholics, even a very high level of alcohol may not kill them directly, Raven said.

"Any emergency room physician will say, any police officer will say, that people are walking around at .600s, .700s. They are chronic alcoholics," she said.

But their liver may be diseased. Their heart may give out. Their organs are damaged and they are weak from poor nutrition. In the camps, there's no running water, no way to get clean.

"The people who are drinking themselves to .35 or higher nightly are killing themselves, in a slow way," said Susan Bomalaski, executive director of Catholic Social Services, which runs the Brother Francis Shelter.

THE NUMBERS

Some think that perhaps more are dying outdoors this year because of the warmer-than-usual May and June -- in the past maybe they would have been in a shelter or at a friend's house or have gotten a cheap motel room.

Consider Eugene Williams, who lived in his east side rented room from October to July, said his landlady, Debra Kern. When he wanted to pitch his tent under a tree in the yard this summer, she said sure. But he took it down after one night.

He kept the place clean. He always paid his rent -- Kern said he had a monthly income but she's not sure from what. He made sure he had enough groceries. He loved pork steak and grilled cheese. He also bought liquor, a bottle a day, she said.

On June 7, Kern told Williams he'd have to leave if he kept letting his drinking friends come around. They stopped coming. She told him he could stay. But when the next month's rent was due July 7, he said he'd rather just move on. He mentioned something about a painting job in Seward but Kern suspects that wasn't true. Now, just days after his body was found in the woods, she is torn up over what happened.

"I got sort of close to him," she said. "I just feel so bad. I just think, what if he would have just stayed on, renting. He'd still be alive."

When asked to compare the number of deaths this year to past years, police found they couldn't. No one kept track. Parker is now reviewing old records, working his way through the years. The numbers are small, he said, and no pattern has emerged.

It appears, though, that 2006 was also a big year, with maybe 13 homeless deaths outdoors, many of them in the spring and summer, according to Parker. And that doesn't count homicides or traffic fatalities.

Another count comes from Bean's Cafe, the soup kitchen at the edge of downtown by the Brother Francis Shelter. Its staff posts an ever-growing "In Memoriam" list on the wall for the year. Almost all on it were homeless at one point or another, though the list includes staff and volunteers too. Some died on the streets; others were in hospitals, at home, in hotels, anywhere in Anchorage.

This year may be headed for a record, with 39 homeless or formerly homeless on the list and more than four months to go.

Anchorage police are quick to point out that homeless die on the streets in other cities, and in bigger numbers. On Los Angeles' Skid Row alone, 60 died last year, a big drop from the 94 in 2005, Markiewicz said. Advocates there say a crackdown by police may have just scattered the homeless.

In New York City, 40 die every three months, on average. But many are dying in hospitals and shelters; fewer than half turn up dead outdoors, according to a New York City report.

In San Francisco, with about double Anchorage's population, homeless deaths dropped to 26 last year, way down from in the past, Markiewicz said.

"Anchorage may actually be on the low side," he said.

Still, "it's too many people in too short of a time," said Freemon of Homeward Bound.

'SCARED OF DYING'

Street life itself uses people up, drives them into exhaustion, exposes them to disease and violence.

"There's a lot of beatings, rapes and robberies, out in plain view. In front of everybody," said Betsy Jensen, 38, who got off the streets just weeks ago and now is in Homeward Bound. "Pretty much I see people looking at it as, that's a homeless drunk person, and just drive by or watch it or not even help."

Just recently, police arrested two men for sexually assaulting a homeless woman as she was passed out drunk.

Jensen wonders if a bad person is out there, killing the homeless. But she knows what the drinking does. She said she almost died this summer because of it. She ended up in the hospital, her liver shot.

She was drinking a bottle of vodka a day, trying to numb her grief over the death of her son, Mychael. In November 2007, the 16-year-old somehow went out the window of a fourth-floor condominium in South Anchorage and was found bloody and unconscious outside. He died the next day. Police say there's no evidence he was pushed. His mother is not convinced.

She thinks it's too easy for street people to get lost in the system even when they want help.

But, "it's my fault too," she said. "I chose alcohol over everything else."

It's the same with the only homicide on the list of 12, James Lockery.

Lockery, who wasn't from Alaska but lived here off and on for years, stayed with friends until they had enough of his drinking. Police say he was sleeping in Centennial Park in Northeast Anchorage when two teens attacked and killed him.

Lockery, 37, was close with a circle of Anchorage hunters and fisherman, who included him in their excursions and looked out for him. One friend, Carmen Felix, learned of Lockery's death when he went to the park to check on him and saw police there.

Arlene Oscar, who is trying to get sober through Homeward Bound for the eighth time, said the street deaths this summer got to her.

"Because I'm scared of dying," Oscar said. "I don't want to go like that. I have two sons to think about. I wouldn't want them to see me go like that, especially through alcohol. Having to be ashamed, you know."

Oscar grew up in Bethel with Edwin Wheeler, 45, who was found dead near a picnic table on East 11th Avenue. And she was drinking buddies with another, Douglas Friday, the pedestrian killed Aug. 10 after stepping onto the Old Seward Highway. She thought of him like a little brother.

She said she wants to clean up her life, maybe become a counselor. She knows she made some bad choices.

"I don't expect no pity from nobody," Oscar said.

Geoffrey Scott Humphries, who was found on June 24 dead in a ravine, had tried Homeward Bound too during one of his many stretches of sobriety. He didn't stay in the program.

Humphries, whose family lives in Alabama, had struggled with alcohol since his college days. He had been in and out of treatment, said his father, J.B. Humphries of Mobile.

"There came a point in time when we just had to push him out," his father said. They hoped he would lift himself up. But he hit bottom again and again.

At the last count, in January, Anchorage had about 400 homeless alcoholics and drug users. They represent just a fraction of the city's homeless but are the most visible part. Some of the 400 were doubling up with friends or staying in cheap motels. Most were in shelters. But 52 were sleeping outside in the deep cold of winter.

FRUSTRATION AND SOLUTIONS

The Alaska Native Health Board passed a resolution earlier this month asking Mayor Dan Sullivan to create a task force addressing violence against Alaska Natives. The advocacy group was outraged by the recent case involving a couple accused of beating up a Native man, then posting it on YouTube; by sexual assaults of Native women; by the number of Natives among the homeless dead.

The group "really feels that the violent crimes and the deaths that have happened within Anchorage since May are a grave threat to the health and the welfare of Alaska Native people," said Angel Dotomain, the board president and CEO.

At Cook Inlet Tribal Council, officials are frustrated that shrinking funds for treatment limit options.

The council plans to direct four case managers to spend part of their workday where the homeless are -- at the downtown transit center, in the camps.

RurAL CAP, which runs Homeward Bound, is adding to its growing inventory of housing but says more is needed. Some of its apartments house people who lived on the streets for 10, even 25 years, Freemon said.

"They are thriving!" Freemon said. "And I don't mean just doing well. I mean thriving in that rental, that apartment."

Catholic Social Services is adding housing too, for when people leave Brother Francis.

"I'm just convinced there's more we can do, a way to reach out, and I don't know what it is," Bomalaski said, kicking a patch of gravel outside the shelter in frustration.

ELOUISE

For Elouise Okakok, help was one day late.

She had been staying at Brother Francis, not drinking much, but had used up her allowed 30 days at the shelter. The night before she died, she was on the streets, sharing a bottle.

She was set to start at Homeward Bound the next day, on Aug. 7, said her boyfriend, Edwin Peterson, 32.

"We just wanted to get off the streets so we could get a job, get a place of our own," he said.

That night, they split a half gallon of Monarch vodka with a friend, then fell asleep in Earl and Muriel King Park, at the edge of downtown, he said. In the morning, Peterson said, he woke up and she didn't.

Neighbors heard him yelling her name. Police questioned him but say there was no evidence of foul play.

If the staff at Brother Francis had known she was trying to straighten her life out, they could have extended her stay. But the couple never mentioned it, Peterson said.

After a memorial service for Okakok at Bean's Cafe a couple of weeks back, Peterson slipped into the Homeward Bound van. He is trying to do alone what they set out to do together. As the van drove away, he left the old crowd behind.


Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

Anchorage Daily News is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service