Evict the homeless -- then where will they go?

June 14, 2011 

I live in a very nice section of South Anchorage where the nearest thing I see to someone or something homeless is when a baby bird falls out of its nest too early. I am not so protected though that I can't imagine how uncomfortable it would be to my nice little middle class life to have a homeless camp nearby.

I enjoy the fact that I can go outside and not worry about who or what I might run into. I like that I can walk my dogs without fear of encountering someone drunk or crazed. I have no concerns when I see the neighborhood kids out playing because, for the most part, they are as safe as they possibly can be given the world in which we live. I worked hard all my life to be able to enjoy this lifestyle, and I'm pretty sure I would greatly resent anyone who took it from me.

When I see the pictures of the homeless, what strikes me most is the wide variety of people the term "homeless" encompasses. There are the usual suspects - people with mental health and substance abuse issues. The woods provide them the secrecy and privacy they need for their sad lives. It also keeps them from society's sight so that we don't have to think much about them until something happens that hits the news like a death, murder, or suicide by alcohol.

But there are other faces out there too, people who, for reasons most of us cannot comprehend, choose to live off the grid and out of society's view. They aren't drunks. They aren't addicts. They aren't the mentally ill -- at least not in the classic sense in which most of us picture mental illness. They are simply people who choose to live outdoors under God's roof and away from anything that smacks of a civilization they do no wish to participate in. Think Grizzly Adams.

And then, as always, you have the homeless who break your heart. These are the families who lost their precarious grip on the bottom rung of the American dream for whatever reason and now try to survive on the fringes of society. These faces include those of kids for whom a hot meal at school might be the only hot meal of the day.

The bottom line is that here in Anchorage we struggle to deal with a homeless population that seems almost intractable. Move them from their current location and they'll simply relocate to a friendlier area. What they won't do is magically disappear. They can't. They have no place to go.

In some respects it is hard to argue with the police moving in to clear the camps out. These people are squatting on public lands and making some of them unusable by the general public that should be able to enjoy them without fear. But that's hard to do when there are tents strung up and human feces underfoot and people stumbling drunk coming out of the woods to accost you as you jog or walk your dog. We have a right to expect a certain level of safety in our neighborhoods, and while not all homeless are scary lawbreakers, enough are addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill that our fears of them are not unfounded.

So the police move in and move these people out. But to where? We haven't increased funding for homeless shelters. We haven't identified low-income housing for which they might qualify. In fact, the list for low-income housing was closed not too long ago because there was simply not enough stock available. We don't have enough treatment facilities for either addiction or mental health services to move a significant number of these people out of the homeless population. And jail is simply no answer unless we'd like to let out criminals with violent crime convictions to make room for the drunk who panhandles on your street corner.

I don't have an answer to this problem. I just know that chasing these people from one homeless camp to another solves nothing and seems to be a waste of precious police resources. As I follow the news about these camps, the question I keep asking myself is, "Where are we chasing them to? Where do we think they'll go?"

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," her memoir of 28 years in Barrow. Website, www.elisepatkotak.com.

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