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A homeless camp at Anchorage City Hall

Jill Burke

John Martin understands why Mayor Dan Sullivan recently pushed city police officers to clear out a string of urban homeless camps, including the one Martin himself was living in. But convinced the campers deserved another option – somewhere to stay where they can shelter themselves from the elements by pitching a tent and crawling into the warmth of a sleeping bag – Martin has taken it upon himself to embark on a quiet, but noticeable protest.

If he’s not careful he could be in for a rude awakening, literally. Mayor Sullivan is a self-described ardent supporter of free expression. But there are limits.

“He may have actually crossed the line with peaceful protest when he decided to sleep,” Sullivan said Tuesday in an interview from his eighth floor corner office in downtown Anchorage.

Martin is fine to protest on the sidewalk outside City Hall as long he doesn’t block pedestrians or become a nuisance, Sullivan said, adding that until he chose to catch a few winks things have so far gone well with Martin. Sleeping, though, constitutes camping and camping without a permit is illegal. If it happens again, Sullivan said, “we’re going to ask him to move.”

Early Tuesday, Martin said he was at the corner to stand up “for the way that Mayor Dan Sullivan has been treating the homeless members of our community.”

Sullivan has recently enforced a city law prohibiting camping in public spaces without a permit. Martin is among those people shooed out of a camp along Campbell Creek. After going back to the site and sleeping on the deck of a creek side boardwalk (his tent had disappeared), Martin said police arrested him and charged him with trespassing. It’s shortly after this run-in that Martin made his way to the corner of 6th Avenue and G Street and began his campaign to get the mayor’s attention, he said.

On Thursday Martin made his way to the intersection and squarely plopped himself in front of a concrete retaining wall inscribed with the words “City Hall,” where he has stayed for the last five days and nights. The same day he arrived he also went inside City Hall and asked to speak with the mayor, only to be told, he said, that he would have to put his request in writing, which would in turn be forwarded to Sullivan. Martin has no idea whether Sullivan ever got the message, but to date hasn’t had any luck getting any one-on-one time with the mayor, although he’s keeping an eye on who’s coming and going in hopes of getting his ear, if only briefly.

The mayor, who has occasionally passed by Martin’s one-man protest, said Martin’s missed a few chances to get those words in. “He could have gone ‘Yo, Dan!’ and I’d have gone ‘Yo, Protestor!”

Momentary teasing aside, Sullivan and Martin are not likely to come to agreement on whether people have a right to choose to live under the sky within the city. If you’re on your own property, great. But if you’re in a public space, forget it.

“You just can’t let people co-opt your public spaces,” Sullivan said.

Homeless camps have come under scrutiny for generating filth and attracting inebriates who want to hang out and party in the woods. All citizens have a right to enjoy the city’s parks and greenbelts and they shouldn’t have to worry about who’s in the bushes and what condition they’re in, he said.

“He has a legitimate concern for the camps that are in our city,” Martin said of the mayor. “But the problem is that people have to have their tents and sleeping bags if they are going to survive. He doesn’t even have a plan in place of where the people are supposed to go.”

The mayor does have a plan, a task force of social service providers assembled to assist people with housing, and treatment for drug and alcohol addiction or other medical conditions. The problem, Sullivan said, is that many of the homeless don’t want the help. Count Martin among them.

Throughout the interview, a one-page “housing assistance” hand out laid on the sidewalk tucked beneath Martin’s flip flop sandals. Someone had brought it to him and he said he would give it to someone who could use it, but that it wasn’t something he was interested in.

“I choose not to receive assistance from the government, so it’s not for me,” he said.

Martin, a one-time auto-body worker who said he quit his job last fall to become a full-time homeless advocate, is convinced there’s enough land in Anchorage to go around. “Let’s find a place where we can pitch tents that suits everybody. There’s so much land here, you would think we could come up with something,” he said.

When Martin’s not protesting at City Hall you can find him right where Sullivan doesn’t want him. “Most recently I have taken up residence in the greenbelt around Campbell Creek,” Martin said of his current living situation. “That is where I live.”

Since carving out his place on the sidewalk near City Hall Martin said he’s generally been well received. Passersby have brought him food, reading material, water, soda and juice, a sleeping bag and two blankets. The police have been polite and have let him be. Someone dropped off a flower for him and a child gave him a few strips of candy. Martin has since assembled these items into a make-shift memorial for James Crump, a nurse who was killed in a car accident about two blocks away from Martin’s corner during Saturday’s Alaska Pride Parade.

When he speaks of the kindness of strangers, Martin is moved to tears. When asked how he gets by without a job, he speaks of a higher power. “My God provides all my needs. I don’t have to worry about what I will eat tomorrow or what I will put on. He provides everything I need at every turn,” Martin said. “I have never lacked for anything and there is always abundance, but I’ve [also] learned how little I need.”

The idea that there should be a congregating place somewhere in the city for Martin and other homeless individuals is something Sullivan’s heard before. Some have even suggested dedicating a grassy tract of land along 3rd Avenue -- the site of the old Native hospital -- for this very purpose.

Sullivan, however, won’t be swayed. Public spaces are just that, public, and he doesn’t envision condoning free-for-all camping, regardless of whether it’s a lifestyle some people prefer and feel they are entitled to.

“Too bad,” Sullivan said bluntly. “You don’t get the right to co-opt public spaces. Take your lifestyle somewhere else.”

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com