A solar-powered homeless camp in Anchorage, and an arrest

The tent Matthew Strametz built was, among Anchorage homeless camps, a palace. 

Under a gray tarp, a wooden door opened up to a tidy, roomy haven with a light switch, powered by solar panels that were chained to a nearby tree. Yard art decorated the space near the front entrance and seed packets marked a small garden.  

But Strametz's camp was conspicuously and illegally set up along the Chester Creek greenbelt. It lay a stone's throw from the popular sports complex that includes the Anchorage Football Stadium and Mulcahy Stadium. Passers-by and Anchorage police took notice of it.

Now Strametz is sitting in the Anchorage jail. He's accused of stealing the solar panels that powered his lights and electronics.  

His is a story of the ingenuity and pitfalls of the often-unseen world of illegal camping along Anchorage's greenbelts.

In his camp a few days before his arrest, Strametz, a fast-talking, good-natured 47-year-old, joked he was taking an early retirement. He wanted a breather to "re-sort" his life.

He was already on probation for felony theft — he was caught trying to steal electronics from an Anchorage Wal-Mart in December 2015, court records show. He didn't see himself as homeless. He'd built a home, albeit on public parkland. He could never sleep on the street, he said. He needed his electronics and his toys. 

An encounter with police

The police visited Strametz a week before his arrest, part of the routine canvassing of illegal camps.

"Come out — Anchorage police," officer Mark Karstetter called out as he and three other officers walked toward the camp through a thicket of spruce trees. The police team was spending the day on the Chester Creek greenbelt, posting eviction notices on some of the dozens of illegal camps that have mushroomed up in the woods in recent weeks.

The proliferation of illegal camps poses a perennial problem for local police, who have to balance complaints from neighbors about trash, campfires and illegal camping with civil-rights restrictions on evicting campers and removing personal belongings.

None of the camps looked quite like Strametz's, with a tent built from a gray tarp stretched over wooden poles. There was a barbecue grill on a wooden cart with large wheels. An old lamp, a wine glass with a candle and a vase sat nearby on an old rusting stove, like a kind of shrine. Two whimsical iron cats stuck out of the ground.

The wooden door opened. Officer Karstetter leaned his arm against the top. He peered in, incredulous.

"Looks pretty cozy," Karstetter said. "You've got an oven, a weather station — what else you got in here? A battery pack?"

Minutes later, Strametz climbed outside, blinking in the afternoon sun. He is about 5 feet 5 inches tall, with glasses and a graying beard. He wore a striped shirt and a hat that said "Alaska."

Strametz asked if he was going to jail. Not unless there was a warrant out for his arrest, Karstetter replied. The police just wanted to talk to him for a few minutes.

Officer Mike Farr started asking a series of questions that police use to steer people toward assistance. Strametz said he wasn't a veteran, disabled, a drunk or an addict, all classifications of homeless people who can get a government break. He didn't need help finding housing or public assistance, at least not right then. He didn't want to live with other people.

Strametz told the police he had lived in Alaska since the late 1980s. He had been homeless for about a year and was living on unemployment, $400 a month, and food stamps. He was out of a job.

He said he bought the solar panels on the Internet, using their power to charge his phone, his tablet and the lights in his tent. The panels were chained to a nearby tree.

Strametz gave the police his probation officer's name from an earlier felony theft case. He didn't have a mailbox. Karstetter wondered: How did she find him?

"I told her, right here," Strametz said. "Drew her a map."

Officer Jesse Elmore narrowed his eyes at the black grocery handbaskets sitting on shelves on one side of the tent. Were those Fred Meyer baskets? Wasn't that stealing, a violation of his probation? Strametz gave a guilty smile. He said he could put them back. 

Farr wrote a case number on the side of the tarp. At that moment, Strametz had 15 days to find a new home, the product of a judge's ruling in a 2011 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that required procedures for eviction. He was told to find a legal campground or permanent housing.

"Otherwise, you're going to see me and my co-workers for the rest of the summer," Elmore told him. He warned they'd come back with Strametz's probation officer if he didn't move.

As they left, the police gawked at the upturned patio heater Strametz used as a fireplace.

Sgt. Jen Haywood, a member of the Anchorage Police Department's Community Action Policing Team, said she'd seen some fancy illegal camps over the years. One had running water. That man had a generator and was heating snow through an insulated hose.

But solar panels — that was a new one, Haywood said.

A comfortable camp

A few days after the eviction notice but before he was arrested, Strametz was still in his camp. He was spending the morning there, in his tent, watching "Star Trek: Generations" on a tablet powered by the solar panels he is now accused of stealing. Outside, birds chirped.

Strametz was evicted from his last spot more than a month ago, he said. He picked this spot on the Chester Creek trail because it was dry. He'd seen people snapping photos of his camp. He wasn't sure if it was out of resentment or appreciation.

"I am intruding on their kind of peaceful area of Anchorage," Strametz said. "I don't like it. But you know, it is what it is at the moment."

Inside his tent, wooden boards lined the floor. A switch hung from the ceiling near a wooden center column. Strametz flicked the switch to turn on a hanging back-up light for a car. He had also installed a motion-sensor burglar alarm.

A gas-powered cooking range sat on one wall next to a stack of white shelves. Strametz neatly organized his food in the grocery baskets on the shelves. There was a basket of condiments, like mayonnaise and ketchup, and a basket of boxes of rice and pasta.

On the top shelf Strametz put bread and dry goods: everything "miceable," he said. He'd placed bottled water on the floor.

He tries to keep his camp clean and nice, he said. In the earth outside his front door, seed packets stand up as markers. Strametz had planted radishes, lupines, delphiniums and bachelor's buttons.

While Strametz was growing up in Homer, his stepfather ran a safety training program, he said. Strametz was his helper. He said his stepfather would drop him off in the woods for three days at a time, like a survival test.

He's worked as a welder and a mechanic and speaks fluently in voltages and electric currents. He taught himself how to set up the solar panels.

In his adult life, he's seen trouble. On Dec. 20, 2015, court records show, Strametz tried to steal about $1,100 worth of electronic goods from Wal-Mart. Loss-prevention officers watched him pick out electronics, like a keyboard, HDMI cables, speakers and SD cards, according to a charging document in the case. He concealed the items in a box for a car seat to try to make it look like that's what he was buying, police said in the charges.

A judge ordered him to serve a couple of months in jail and stay away from Wal-Mart.

It was at least his fourth theft conviction since 1991. Asked why he stole, Strametz said, "Stupid mistakes."

Strametz's last job was at the restaurant Organic Oasis as a handyman and dishwasher, but he was laid off about three months ago. Joshua Cuddy, a manager at Organic Oasis, praised Strametz as an employee — resourceful, a hard worker, an excellent handyman. Strametz lived in a tent on Ship Creek last winter while working at the restaurant, Cuddy said, and came to work with stories about life in an urban camp.

"He was living a tough life down there," Cuddy said. "But, really, he has the setup."

Days before his arrest, Strametz said he knew his camp wasn't likely to last. He liked being forced to move, he said. It's a chance to tear down the tent and re-set it.

But on May 16, an employee of a local construction company identified two solar panels and several batteries in Strametz's camp that had been stolen from a construction yard near Boniface Parkway, according to Anchorage police. The theft had been reported in March.

With an officer present, Strametz unlocked the panels and gave them to a construction company employee. The company proved ownership of the panels and the batteries, police said. The following day, Strametz was charged with stealing them. 

Strametz declined to comment on the case from jail. His next court hearing is later in June. He has not yet entered a plea. 

John Berntsen, who camps in a tent right next to Strametz, said this week he was looking out for Strametz's stuff. He didn't know why Strametz had disappeared, or even his last name, but seemed concerned. He sleeps in a tent Strametz supplied him.

"He always looks out for everybody," Berntsen said.

Berntsen said he and another nearby camper were aware Strametz had to move his camp soon. He was planning to help dismantle it and take it elsewhere, maybe with a borrowed truck.

Marc Lester contributed reporting to this story.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.