Anchorage assemblymen seek quicker clearing of illegal camps from parks

People evicted from illegal encampments in Anchorage parks may soon have less time to move, as neighbors have pushed elected officials to take more decisive action about a seemingly endless cycle of tents and encampments in city parks and greenbelts.

An ordinance up for debate before the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night slightly shrinks the moving time for an illegal camp from a little more than two weeks to 10 days.

Homeless advocates and officials in the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz say the measure will make little difference without more housing options and other services for the chronically homeless, and say the speed of clean-ups largely depends on resources available to the police and city parks department.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska has suggested a possible legal challenge. The measure comes at a time of overflowing emergency shelters at the east end of downtown Anchorage.

But backers say it's meant to bring some relief to neighbors and trail and park users.

"It's only a little bit of a solution for the neighbors and the people that own or are around the property where illegal camps are," said Fred Dyson of Chugiak-Eagle River, who is co-sponsoring the measure with Assemblyman Eric Croft.

Croft first introduced the measure in October. Since then, the proposed 10-day time frame has remained unchanged.


But Croft has since added in a variety of other policies, indicating that the city is working on more broadly addressing the reasons people may be camping in the first place. He notes in the ordinance that the city has committed about a half-million dollars to homelessness initiatives next year. That includes housing for homeless seniors older than 65 and a special team to work in camps and shelters to help connect people to housing and jobs.

"This quicker clean-up makes sense to everybody if we're really working hard on the other end, which is providing services," Croft said.

The measure itself doesn't direct more money to camp clean-ups, though the Assembly approved $170,000 for more parks staff to do clean-ups in next year's budget. The city could not keep up with the volume of belongings and trash in the camps, said John Rodda, the city parks director.

The new time frame would also end in 2021, based on Croft's current proposal. Croft said the city should evaluate how well it's working between now and then.

City officials could take quicker action on a wide variety of public nuisances if the measure passes Tuesday. But it's tailored to illegal camps, one of Anchorage's more intractable problems. It's the latest turn in a continued back-and-forth between elected officials, neighbors and homeless advocates.

A  special unit in the Anchorage Police Department, a social worker and park clean-up crews now use a phone-based application to track camps. The city park's department assigned a 10-person team to camp clean-up and collected 160 tons of trash this summer alone.

The amount of trash particularly infuriates neighbors who live near parks and trails. The topic pops up frequently on neighborhood social media sites like Nextdoor.

Some have raised questions about crime and safety in the camps. Stephanie Rhoades, a former Anchorage Superior Court judge, came to one Assembly homelessness committee meeting to say she's enjoyed walking on the Chester Creek Trail with her husband for many years but has watched the trail become "degraded" by encampments in recent years.

In October, she said, she noticed a homeless camp with a chimney and an active fire. There were propane bottles and a grill for cooking, she said. Rhoades started a therapeutic court for people with mental health problems and said she understood complexities of homelessness.

Homeless advocates have said it isn't helpful to push people out of camps without more of a place for people with troubled or criminal histories to go, or a system that more effectively prevents homelessness from happening in the first place. More than 2,600 people sought homelessness services between July and September, according to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. About 611 classified as "chronic," which includes longtime campers with a disability.

A social worker embedded with the Anchorage Police Department has begun to send campers to Partners for Progress, a coalition aimed at helping people with criminal records find work and housing, said Nancy Burke, the city homeless coordinator.

If a person is evicted from a camp and has nowhere to go, it's more likely that person will steal to build a new camp, said Cathleen McLaughlin, the executive director of Partners for Progress.

"The push is to get to housing," Burke told Assembly members during a committee meeting earlier this year. "We're doing a complete system change. We're not just trying to move people around the community."

Burke and other officials in the Berkowitz administration want to build new buildings, convert existing buildings and work with private landlords to accommodate more people, and are examining several properties around Anchorage.

Anchorage's current camping policies date back to 2010, when the ACLU of Alaska sued the city, asserting that police were seizing and destroying the property of homeless people with too little notice. A judge ruled in 2011 that Anchorage's policies were unconstitutional. The city then set up a 15-day time window for people to move before crews can throw away belongings.

Casey Reynolds, a spokesman for the ACLU of Alaska, declined to comment ahead of Tuesday's vote about whether his group would react with a lawsuit.

In reality, limited manpower and funding often means that several weeks go by before parks crews can clean up a camp.


"We can't keep up with the cleanup in general terms," Rodda, the city's parks director, said in a recent interview.

Current law allows Anchorage to shut down encampments with as little as 72 hours notice. That's the policy in the much-larger city of Seattle, where homelessness has been declared an emergency, and camps have proliferated in recent years.

But city manager Bill Falsey told Assembly members in an October meeting, while he was still working as city attorney, that the shorter notice period is very rarely used. Personal property must be stored under those circumstances, Falsey said.

"The challenges of storing this material have been too high," Falsey said.

At another recent Assembly homelessness committee meeting, Heidi Heinrich, the owner of the Lucky Wishbone restaurant, said she thought the community councils could help find storage centers. She also said she didn't think the noticing period change would make a difference if the city was already stretched thin on its manpower.

Croft said he's hoping his ordinance will at least allow the city to more quickly break up camps deemed "particularly worrisome."

He also said he's working on a second measure that would affect how far away campers can move from one location to another, legal guidelines for the storage of belongings, and fires and cooking in illegal camps.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.