Nine Alaska legislators said in a letter Monday that the Municipality of Anchorage has failed to use its full authority to clear illegal encampments on public land, and asked the city to start cleaning up camps and disposing of waste immediately.
But city officials fired back that the letter failed to offer any realistic solutions to a complex issue and didn’t acknowledge the work already underway. Some said they found the letter offensive and misguided, and that it inaccurately interprets a federal court opinion.
“I’m absolutely offended by this letter,” said Downtown Anchorage Assemblyman Christopher Constant. The letter, he said, revealed that the state lawmakers who signed it believe the city is doing nothing.
“I guess they’ve been in Juneau too long,” he said. “We are working really hard… If there was an easy answer, we would have figured it out by now.”
The letter comes as more people use the city’s parks and greenbelts in the warmer weather. It also follows two incidents, one of them fatal, involving gunfire off the Chester Creek Trail in two days.
One teenager was shot and killed and another injured Sunday following an “altercation” near Sullivan Arena, according to police. There’s no indication they were homeless, police said. On Saturday, after receiving reports of gunshots in a park along the trail, police chased down and arrested Timothy Wood. Officers found Wood in a nearby homeless camp, and he matched a description given to police, according to a charging document filed against him.
Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, is the legislator behind Monday’s letter addressed to city Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat, and Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll.
The letter is signed by Rep. Chris Tuck, Rep. Geran Tarr, Rep. Harriet Drummond, Rep. Matt Claman, Sen. Tom Begich, Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson and Sen. Bill Wielechowski — all Anchorage Democrats — and Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen.
Fields said he circulated the letter among state lawmakers before the weekend, but the two incidents highlighted “the need for rapid action.”
“This is the No. 1 public safety issue I hear about,” Fields said. “There’s overwhelming community disgust and frustration about criminal activity in the park system and the city’s failure to use their full legal authority to get criminals out of the park system.”
The rights of the homeless
The letter points to a case stemming from Boise, Idaho, Martin v. Boise. In that 2018 case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion that said local governments can’t prohibit sleeping on the streets when there is no shelter available.
In the letter, Fields argues that even under that opinion — which he called “the most restrictive case law related to municipal authority to address squatters/campers" — the city could still clear people and their belongings out of the greenbelt.
“The Municipality of Anchorage has ample space for individuals to sleep outside, including thousands of square acres in Chugach State Park,” said the letter from the Alaska legislators.
“Martin v. Boise does not preclude localities from removing structures or otherwise abating waste left by drug addicts, thieves, and other squatters/campers,” it says. “So long as Anchorage has some place individuals can sleep outside, case law does not limit removal of waste from the park system.”
Fields said he was not recommending shifting people from illegal encampments in the city to Chugach State Park, but he was highlighting the city’s legal authority.
That section of the letter, however, drew ire from some.
Constant questioned whether Fields was proposing “homeless internment camps.” Casey Reynolds, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said in a statement that expelling people experiencing homelessness to Chugach State Park “is not only unconstitutional, it is horribly inhumane and un-Alaskan.”
“I can certainly say on behalf of the vulnerable, the initial read of the letter is heartbreaking,” said Jasmine Khan, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
Berkowitz was traveling Monday and not available to comment, said Kristin DeSmith, municipal spokeswoman.
Municipal attorney Becky Windt Pearson said the state legislators’ letter is “an oversimplification of the legal framework that governs homeless camps.”
She said the opinion in the Idaho case doesn’t govern a person’s property, but governs whether a person can sleep outside on public property.
A local case from 2011 governs how the city can gather and throw out people’s belongings from the camp, she said. The ACLU had sued the city on behalf of a homeless man named Dale Engle who said he lost everything he owned when his camp was cleared out in 2009. A Superior Court Judge ruled a city ordinance that allowed authorities to clean up homeless camps — including throwing out their property — with five days’ notice was unconstitutional.
Now, the city gives people 10 days to remove their property before a camp is cleaned up. The city can clear camps within 72 hours of giving notice of the clean-up, Windt Pearson said, but it must store people’s belongings.
The city has recently started noticing and cleaning up camps by zones, and budgeted money toward that process, Constant said.
In summer 2018, Windt Pearson said, the city removed 243 tons of personal property from public municipal lands and cleaned up 369 camps.
Fields said he would like to see the immediate removal of encampments in areas where camping is not permitted. He said the city shouldn’t feel chained to the 2011 court decision.
“The city should not allow itself to be bound by a settlement that was utterly dysfunctional and agreed to by a previous administration, and frankly a settlement that predated the incredible and disturbing growth of the encampments,” Fields said.
‘Wasn’t meant to offend’
Fields said he supported housing for people who are homeless, but believes it’s only part of the solution. He said many people living in the illegal encampments have somewhere else to stay and are just using the camps for illegal activities such as selling drugs and moving stolen goods.
Khan said, “it’s dangerous to categorize an entire group of people as criminal, and it always has been throughout history."
The letter said “criminal activity and encampments established by drug addicts will not be solved or addressed at all by expansion of housing.”
“While ‘housing first’ is part of the solution to homelessness, it will not fix the problem of illegal encampments,” the letter said. “To the contrary, failing to enforce prohibitions on encampments sends criminals a message that they can squat, build structures, and engage in criminal activity with impunity.”
Wielechowski, who signed the letter, said for years he’s heard from people with concerns about illegal encampments. That includes concerns about who’s living in the encampment, and the creation of dangerous and unsanitary conditions in public spaces.
But, Wielechowski said, he believed the letter sent Monday could have been done more “artfully.” He said the city has worked on the issue for years and they’ve done a good job. The letter, in part, reflected the frustrations the lawmakers have heard for so many years, he said.
“It wasn’t meant to offend,” he said.
He said he believed the solutions to the illegal encampments in Anchorage include providing mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment and affordable housing. Those solutions could have been better reflected in the letter, he said.
Assembly chair Felix Rivera, who represents Midtown, said he invites the legislators to sit down with members of the Assembly and city administration to learn more about the efforts underway to address illegal encampments. He also invited them to help within the issue, including financially. He proposed using a portion of the alcohol tax that the state receives to help cities address homelessness.
“I believe right now with the current staffing we have and the current systems we have in place we’re doing the best job we can,” Rivera said.