A city crackdown on Anchorage homeless camps has created what officials say is short-term stress on downtown shelters from people evicted from camps in woods, parks and vacant lots.
The city's homeless coordinator, Nancy Burke, said she's stepping up efforts to link people with dozens of subsidized housing vouchers that are becoming available. She and other city officials say they're trying to shepherd people out of the woods and toward services.
But between 300 and 320 people have been trying to gain entry to Brother Francis Shelter every night in recent weeks, Burke said. The shelter was built for 240.
"We have a bottleneck right now," Burke said.
Social service providers say the past few weeks have been stressful. On warm days, the parking lot between Bean's Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter on Third Avenue has transformed into a camp of its own.
"People are showing up with literally everything they own," said Lisa Sauder, the executive director of Bean's Cafe.
Brother Francis Shelter is at capacity, but people who are being turned away are staying in the parking lot, said Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services, which runs the shelter.
The downtown shelters normally see fewer people in the summer than in the winter because of warmer weather and seasonal work. But this summer, that hasn't been the case, both Sauder and Aquino said.
No data has been collected showing that the influx of people can be directly linked to the city's crackdown on homeless camps. But service providers said people arriving at the shelters in response to eviction notices reported they were instructed by police to come to Brother Francis Shelter or Bean's Cafe.
At lunchtime on Monday, Brady LeBlanc, the lead monitor at Bean's Cafe and a longtime employee, pushed through a wooden door and walked around to the back of the building. He unlocked a wooden shed.
Inside, about 20 bags sat on shelves, mostly black trash bags. A wheelchair was parked in the walking area. Names and dates were written on duct tape on the bags. For the first time, in response to the influx, Bean's Cafe has begun storing the belongings of people coming in from homeless camps.
LeBlanc has watched people come to the parking lot with chairs and beds in recent weeks. He comes to work at 6:30 a.m. and often finds Karluk Street to be a mess.
One of LeBlanc's duties is making rounds to tell people they can't keep all their belongings in the parking lot. He offers to put those items in storage.
"It's kind of sad, but you know, they can't camp here," LeBlanc said. "And that's the problem we have now. We have a lot more people this year than in distant years."
He also said people would rather stay outside than go into Brother Francis Shelter, where there's no drinking or smoking allowed.
Aquino, of Catholic Social Services, said her agency has been working to expand daytime services to people who come to the shelter. But for now, she said, the focus has been on making sure there is "order and safety" in the parking lot, especially on warm, sunny days.
She also said Brother Francis Shelter has been adjusting staffing and scheduling to try to meet the increased summer demand.
Assemblyman Bill Evans, the chair of the Assembly's committee on homelessness, said he would rather see people closer to services than living in a camp in the woods. He called it a "necessary and hopefully temporary burden on the providers down there until we get other programs in place."
In and around Bean's Cafe at lunchtime recently, some said they would choose anything over the shelter. One 30-year-old man said he hated the smell and the noise. Others said they were concerned about bedbugs and theft.
Darlene Lupie, 46, got an eviction notice in June at her camp in the Mountain View area. She and her partner gathered up their belongings. But they didn't go to the shelter. They just moved their camp elsewhere.
Lupie said she has seen more people coming from the camps to the shelter.
"It's pretty hard to get out of the streets," Lupie said, taking a break from her volunteer job collecting dirty trays at Bean's Cafe. "But a person who has a camp, they're not homeless. That's their home."
She said she has applied for housing from RurALCap, a nonprofit that runs subsidized housing programs. But Lupie is ambivalent on the idea of having a roof over her head.
"Yes I'd like to be in apartment, but I'd also like to be at my camp," Lupie said. "Peace and quiet. Hear the birds, everything around me … people talking, and animals and cars."
Right now, the city is intensifying efforts to line up people for subsidized housing vouchers, Burke said. Most of the vouchers are targeted at people who have needs related to mental health or substance abuse. Through the programs, one-third of a person's income goes toward the cost of the rent.
The city has found housing for about 85 people so far, Burke said. Starting in August, she said, a new batch of subsidized housing vouchers will be available.
She said the city told the shelters, "Let's just give it two months … if you guys can ride this out, the vouchers are going to start coming online."
Burke said that anyone who is homeless and interested in housing is encouraged to talk to a case manager or staff members at Bean's Cafe or Brother Francis Shelter.