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After a year underground, Anchorage homeless advocate must find new digs

Ben Anderson
John Martin, an activist for the homeless and homeless himself, displays an eviction notice he found at his camp near Westchester Lagoon. He is sitting in front of city hall, where he is most weekdays. August 15, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
John Martin, an activist for the homeless and homeless himself, at his camp near Westchester Lagoon. He was given an eviction notice yesterday. August 15, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
John Martin, an activist for the homeless and homeless himself, at his camp near Westchester Lagoon. He was given an eviction notice yesterday. August 15, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
John Martin, an activist for the homeless and homeless himself, at his camp near Westchester Lagoon. He was given an eviction notice yesterday. August 15, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
John Martin, an activist for the homeless and homeless himself, at his camp near Westchester Lagoon. He was given an eviction notice yesterday. August 15, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
John Martin, an activist for the homeless and homeless himself, at his camp near Westchester Lagoon. He was given an eviction notice yesterday. August 15, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
John Martin, an activist for the homeless and homeless himself, at his camp near Westchester Lagoon. He was given an eviction notice yesterday. August 15, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

A local advocate for the homeless population in Anchorage -- and a homeless man himself -- has been given three days' notice to vacate his campsite on Municipality of Anchorage land. While the eviction notice is nothing unusual, what is unusual is the campsite itself, located about 50 feet from Anchorage’s well-traveled Chester Creek Trail near Westchester Lagoon and carved into a hillside, like a hobbit hole from the popular “Lord of the Rings” series.

What’s all the more incredible about this location is that John Martin III -- the shelter’s resident -- has been living there undetected for longer than a year. Martin is a well-known commodity in downtown Anchorage -- he’s the man with a long, scraggly beard and piercing blue eyes, usually clad in flip-flops, who on any given weekday can typically be found outside City Hall, protesting perceived negative treatment of the homeless by the powers-that-be in Anchorage.

He first set up there in 2011, when the city began cracking down on urban homeless camps, small tent communities that would crop up among the city’s homeless population. When Martin first set up his protest there, it led to a comment from Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan that he tries to limit “discussion with first-degree sex offenders” as one reason why Sullivan and Martin had not sat down to discuss the issue. Martin spent eight years in prison after an affair with a 15-year-old girl who had been living with him and his wife. Martin was 23 at the time.

For a while after leaving prison, Martin led a somewhat normal life. But then he felt a “calling” to begin campaigning for Anchorage’s homeless. So he became homeless himself in 2009.

Ed O’Neill, president of the community and homelessness advocacy group Anchorage Responsible Beverage Retailer’s Association (ARBRA), backed Martin’s overall goal of helping those homeless who are willing and able to receive help and use it to improve their situation.

“(Martin is a) very intellectual speaker on a mission, who doesn’t take any kind of handouts from social services or anything like that. His mission is to find a place for the one-third of the population that’s homeless and just needs a leg up,” O’Neill said. That “one-third” contrasts with other sections of the homeless population, like the chronically inebriate and mentally ill, who might need significantly more help than just a warm, safe place to sleep.

Martin’s mission has long been to convince the city, and Sullivan, that the homeless needed someplace to go when the community’s shelters are full -- or just a spot that they could pitch a tent and stay out of the way.

‘Dig in or die’

Martin has certainly been able to accomplish the latter goal over the course of the last year. He said he decided to “dig in” toward the end of the winter in 2012. As soon as the snow melted, he began looking for a suitable location to realize that mission.

His shelter is partially carved into a hillside, not far from the spot where Chester Creek Trail cuts under Minnesota Drive on the way downtown. It’s a heavily-trafficked trail, which makes it more surprising that he’s gone undiscovered for so long there. Anchorage Parks and Recreation doesn’t track the number of people who use the trail, but hundreds of people go by this section of Chester Creek Trail most days. Continue down the trail less than a mile, and it joins with the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail beside Westchester Lagoon.

There’s a small, well-trodden path leading off the trail to Martin’s shelter. On approach, it’s difficult to tell there’s anything out of the ordinary. There’s a patch of brown branches and evergreen needles, where it looks like a tree fell over long ago -- or someone dumped some trash from a yard cleanup.

But beneath the detritus is a tarp ceiling, held up by an interwoven framework of branches, a cozy little pod that allows dim light in through the blue tarps. Martin has carved out a portion of the hill into a sleeping area with only a couple of feet of headroom, while the shelter’s vestibule is a little more spacious.

Martin said that he decided to dig in because of how difficult it is to live outside in Alaska during the winter, especially with nowhere to go on a regular, night-by-night basis.

“Dig in or die,” he said. “That’s really what it’s come to; you have to dig in or die.”

He said that during particularly cold periods, others would share the shelter. He said it’s big enough to sleep three comfortably, and he has had four there at one point, though it was a bit cramped. A thin mattress marks the upper sleeping area; hay lines the lower floor.

He said he’s had a few close calls during his time at the shelter. He only goes there at night, and doesn’t take food with him. In the wintertime, he followed a narrow ravine back to his shelter’s entrance, so that footprints in the snow wouldn’t give away his location. But the shelter's proximity to such a popular trail makes encounters inevitable. He said dogs will sometimes come up to the entrance, stay for a moment, then run off as their owners moving down the trail. One time, somebody stepped on the roof of the shelter while Martin was in it, realized something was strange, then left.

“One time, I heard somebody say, ‘Oh, and that’s where they drop the grass clippings’,” he chuckled.

Asked if he suspects other homeless residents have put up similar shelters, Martin said he couldn’t be sure.

“You have to keep it secret if you’re going to do it,” he said.

How Martin’s camp was found out wasn’t immediately clear -- though he has his own suspicions. He recently got a larger sign for use in his protest that reads “Protesting the city for taking survival gear from the homeless” in block letters written on a piece of cardboard. That’s in reference to what Martin believes is dangerous confiscation of things like tents or sleeping bags from homeless people when they’re arrested and taken to jail.

“I almost suspect I was followed back, because it was about the time I stepped up my protest,” Martin said. Anchorage Police Department spokeswoman Dani Myren said a Community Action Patrol officer posted the eviction notice, based on a tip from a citizen who reported a "tent" in the area.

"They found this subterranean dwelling instead," Myren said.

Two ways to be evicted

On Wednesday night, Martin returned to his shelter to find that eviction notice, tied to a stake with what he said was a piece cut from his own tarp. He points to a slash in the tarp hanging near the entrance.

The notice says that Martin has 72 hours to remove his belongings or they’ll be seized and stored for 30 days, “then disposed of as waste.”

There are a couple of options for evictions from illegal campsites in Anchorage -- the 72-hour notice with 30 days to retrieve belongings, or a 15-day notice, at the end of which the Municipality can dispose of any property left behind.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska took the matter to court on behalf of a homeless man, arguing -- and winning in Superior Court -- that the Municipality had an obligation to give people a chance to retrieve their property before eviction, or time to pick it up after eviction.

“The basis on which we prevailed in the Superior Court is that people have a right to their property, and they can’t be denied the right to their property without due process,” said Tom Stenson, attorney for the ACLU Alaska.

Martin was starting to break down his campsite Thursday night. He was going to spend one more night in it before fully removing it on Friday. Asked whether he was a little heartbroken to have found an eviction notice where he’d slept for more than year, Martin said that it didn't bother him. He’d been lucky to be there that long, Martin said.

“I’m really just going with the flow,” he said. Martin, a religious man prone to occasionally quoting scripture, then paraphrased the book of Luke. “Birds have nests, foxes have their holes, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” he said. He said that applied to all of humanity, in a way.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com