A group of volunteers spent a gray Saturday morning on the eastern fringe of downtown Anchorage clearing out a longtime homeless camp. Now, the people who lived there need to find somewhere else to go.
Just west up Third Avenue from Brother Francis Shelter in an area that's a hub for social services, volunteers used four-wheelers to haul plastic bins full of trash and people's belongings up a small hill from a tucked-away bluff where people had camped for months, or even years.
Amber Griffin was one of the people who was told to move. She had a makeshift tent set up at the site, which was behind the vacant lot that used to house the Alaska Native Medical Center.
Griffin said she started having issues last year when her brother died. That sent her on a downward spiral involving drugs and alcohol, she said. Eventually, she became homeless.
"I'm not a gross person, I'm not a bad person," she said through tears. She wore flip-flop sandals and lay back against a pile of belongings that had been moved out of the campsite. Now, she's not sure where she will go. "I'm just between a rock and a hard place."
The clearing of the campsite started around 9 a.m. and was mostly done by about 1:30 p.m. Saturday as a light drizzle fell from the sky.
Property and business owner groups the Third Avenue Radicals and the East Downtown Action Group spearheaded the effort, in an area of the city that has a high concentration of homelessness. The Anchorage Downtown Partnership, Downtown Community Council, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and other groups were also involved.
"It's not easy," said Anchorage Assembly member Chris Constant, who represents downtown and was at the site Saturday. "When you're balancing this human suffering with the neighborhood suffering and the city's lack of resources and this 50-year pattern of driving the problem here, that is hard to turn. It's not turning a little speedboat, it's turning a giant tanker on the ocean."
One big factor in the problem of homelessness being so pronounced in this stretch of Third Avenue, Constant said, is the back-and-forth about where resources are or should be located.
"A lot of folks, no offense to my friends in South Anchorage, have used this as a place to send their problems," he said. "And what happens? You get a ghetto. Where people are living in the streets for months and years, and we don't solve the problem. … We have to provide the housing and support services. We just can't put it all in one place."
Down in the bluff where shelters were taken down Saturday, people wrapped their possessions in tarps. Cardboard boxes lay flattened on the muddy ground among the trees.
A man who goes by Coach had lived on the bluff for two years. There was no room at the shelter, he said, but he wanted to be near it so he could still access food and a place to shower. He said the campsite used to be fine until more recently, when more people started moving in and "the place started getting trashed."
He and Debra Martin gathered up their bags, boxes and a tarp to get ready for hauling up to the top of the hill. A garbage truck was there to remove the trash that had filled the dumpsters.
Russ Reno, owner of Anchorage Downtown TourGroup on Third Avenue, was one of the volunteers donning an orange vest. He said the issues with homelessness and crime in the area seem to be at a peak.
"Something's got to break here," he said. "We're trying our best to be as kind as we can, but you just gotta go. You know, we can't have this concentration, this homeless camp right in the middle of where we live and work and play."
Leah Summers had been living at the camp for about eight months, and said her brother had been there for three years. She chose the site because Brother Francis Shelter down the hill was too crowded.
The campsite had received a notice that it was illegally located on public land and would need to move, but Summers said she thought they had more time to relocate.
"I wouldn't have minded all the moving and stuff, that's fine," she said, holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee. "We had already packed up, we were planning on moving everything. What was really irritating and hard to take was the rudeness and just the downright no respect for, like — we're human beings."
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