Pedaling toward Bean's Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter with Anchorage Police Department bike cops Kristi Mercer and Cyndi Addington, I felt their mood change. Then I saw why: a shirtless, drunken guy standing in the crosswalk on Third Avenue, challenging semis to run him down.
APD has between five and eight bike police patrolling downtown every day this summer, riding streets on beat-up mountain bikes. Their presence is meant to reduce crime and vandalism in Town Square Park, the transit center, Ship Creek and the rest of downtown. (In the winter, the bike cops work as resource officers in Anchorage schools.)
Seeing downtown from their point of view was like slipping below the glossy surface of the neighborhood with the tourists and the flower baskets, and plunging into the heart of a perennial, frustrating and unrelenting problem, the problem of chronic alcoholics and street kids. From where they sit, everything seems like a vicious cycle. It's hard not to be cynical.
Mercer got off her bike and approached the guy out of the crosswalk, cracking jokes as she guided him to the corner. Addington and I watched from a couple yards away. Then a yelling match broke out behind us. It started to get physical. Addington called for back-up and Mercer approached with her TASER. I did my best to stay out of the way.
But, as quickly as things escalated, the fight dissipated. The angry people stumbled away. A patrol car showed up. The officer got out with his nightstick, his hands covered in latex gloves. He works down by the shelter and the jail every day, he told me.
"These are my peeps," he said, gesturing at the scene. He was trying to be funny, but his tone was raw.
The city blocks outside the shelter that day were lined with faces that had sad, self-destructive stories to tell. I could probably count 100 empty plastic alcohol bottles in my immediate view. Bodies lay in the grass and on the sidewalk. Addington struck up a conversation with a man sitting on a piece of cardboard. He recently had his leg amputated. The flesh above his bandage had a greenish tint. She asked if he wanted to go to the hospital. He said no.
That morning, 19 people had been written up for illegally camping near the shelter, the officers told me. That meant they would all have court dates. Most of them wouldn't show up. That would mean arrest warrants. And that would mean, eventually, going to jail. And then after a while they'd be back in illegal camps. The whole exercise was pointless. Another vicious cycle.
After the shelter, we rode to Town Square Park where we ran into a half a dozen street kids eating baggies of peanuts they'd picked up from a non-profit street outreach. Street kids haunt the park causing all manner of chaos. Gardeners spend an hour each morning picking up wrappers, cans, condoms and containers for spice, or synthetic marijuana. They regularly use acid to combat graffiti. They've learned to discourage loiterers by turning on the sprinkler.
One of the kids, a girl who looked about 16, was so high she could barely keep her eyes open. The guys she was with were older, the type that would make any parent nervous. They were all throwing peanut shells on the street. The bike officers, who are used to dealing with teenagers during the school year, made them clean up. Eventually the group of them got up and walked down the street. It was only a matter of time until they came back.
Most of the kids had somewhere to go, Addington said. They weren't homeless. But they chose to come downtown, where there are friends, drugs and free food. She already knew their stories. They'd end up getting drunk or high. There would be fights and sexual assaults. Some of the kids would grow up and join the population in the shelter.
Addington used to work in corrections. The jails were like that, too, she said. Parents would cycle through. Then their kids would come next.
Rolling down Fourth Avenue we came across a guy sleeping on a park bench. He was frail and his hair was matted and unkempt. The officers stopped to talk to him. He was just out of Alaska Psychiatric Institute, he said. He'd been camping in the woods and eating at Bean's. He didn't have an ID.
"Where you gonna stay tonight?" Addington asked the guy.
"Outside," he said.
"Where you gonna eat?" asked Mercer.
"I got money."
"Anything else we can do for you?" Mercer asked.
"Got a buck?"
They didn't have a buck. They got back on their bikes. They'd see that guy again, they knew that. Maybe the shelter or the jail or the street. He was a frequent flyer. How do you help a guy like that?
I suggested that there could be more shelters like Karluk Manor, which provides permanent housing to people without requiring them to quit drinking. Even the Manors' critics say it's working. There could be more treatment for addiction and mental illness. More low-cost housing. Mercer was skeptical. There was something missing in my logic, she said.
People who live on the street make choices that get them there, she said. Maybe they are mentally ill and they don't want to take medication or live by someone else's rules. Maybe they are an alcoholic and they don't want to quit drinking. Some people start out in bad environments. Addiction is a disease. But somewhere in the mix, there is always an element of choice. Some people who are chronically on the street will stay there as long as they can get a meal and a place to sleep at night, she said. In that way, the system set up to end homelessness enables its most chronic form, she said.
"You can't control people, their free will," she said.
To really change the problem, you have to change the choices people make. Or make it harder to be homeless. That would mean no free bags of peanuts or warm places to sleep. The city isn't ready to do that, she said.
"I wish there was an easy solution," she said. "I just don't think there is."
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.