On a recent weekday afternoon, a couple of Anchorage police officers and a city worker tasked with helping homeless people get off the street set off along a trail into the woods near Valley of the Moon Park.
The route threads through what has been a notorious warren of homeless camps along the Chester Creek greenbelt. On this day the woods were clear and quiet. Officer Natasha Welch has been visiting this spot for 12 years, carrying out the city’s ever-evolving homeless camp clearing process. It has never been as effective as it is now, she said.
“It’s a good feeling, like something is actually getting done,” she said.
Over the last few years, the city has stepped up and refined the process for clearing out homeless camps. There is some indication its efforts are working. Last summer, the city counted the total homeless population at 1,064 — 240 fewer than the year before. They also cleared 369 camps, 237 more than in the summer of 2017. This year, so far, the city has removed 138 structures in the woods and contacted 180 campers.
There are several projects underway that would expand housing options for campers. The number of homeless people in the state has also remained relatively flat for the last five years, even as it has risen in most West Coast cities, according to federal statistics.
Even so, public outcry about homelessness and encampments has only gotten louder. Public reports about camps increased 12% from 2017 to 2018, and public anger over the camps appears to have escalated in recent weeks. There have been letters to the editor, editorials, social media rants, Facebook groups, community coalitions formed, and news stories produced. At an assembly work session on Wednesday, much of the public testimony was from angry residents and business owners, frustrated with a lack of progress, feeling their concerns are unheard and blaming the city.
“The primary issue the public is torqued about is the mayor is missing in action," said Stephanie Rhoades, a former Superior Court judge who has been working with a coalition of residents frustrated with the encampments, in an interview the day before the public meeting. “We don’t have the municipality coming forward, saying ‘We hear you, we think your rights are as important as those in the camps.’”
Nancy Burke, the city’s homeless coordinator, said there is a gap between what the city sees as clear progress and what the public knows about the city’s efforts. Presenting plans and outcomes in public meetings has not been an effective way to get the message out, she said.
“Trying to find that communication channel is really hard. We usually just get shouted down,” she said.
The city has been working on homelessness for at least 20 years, she said. Changes take time and it’s hard to get everyone with a stake in the issue on the same page and willing to invest in the projects that are happening, she said.
The homelessness problem has grown more complex in recent years with an increase in opiate drug addiction and fewer resources than ever for those with mental illness, in part because of instability at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, homeless advocates say. Campers are younger, and more likely to have addictions to feed, according to police. The most proven route to get people off the streets, used in cities across the country, is to provide more affordable housing, and housing with supports for people with mental illness and other problems, Burke said. The city does not have enough of that, though several projects are planned.
As camps are cleared, campers move to other areas and tend to be more in the public eye, fueling a perception that there are more homeless, even as overall numbers stay the same. Campers are also moving to the shelter, putting more pressure on a system that is already stressed. Funding is also a significant hurdle. Revenue from a proposed alcohol tax would have been used for treatment, housing, shelter beds and clearing camps. The tax, however, failed.
Burke wants to better channel community interest toward common goals.
“If we get all of us pulling the same direction at the end of this, there’s nothing that could stop us. Except money, I guess — money could stop us,” she said.
How does the city clear a homeless camp? Is it working?
The new process for clearing camps works like this: When someone reports a camp, it is plotted on a map. After that, a municipal employee will check the camp to see if someone is living there. Rather than being cleared individually, camps are cleared in wide geographic zones. Police post that the zone will be abated, and then clear out campers 10 days later. After that, a work crew cleans up the trash.
“That is huge from our perspective,” said Welch, the police officer.
One of the more effective parts of the system, she said, are city workers like Tanya Vandenbos, with the city’s Mobile Intervention Team, who note who the homeless campers are and help connect them with services such as help for mental health or addiction problems. Vandenbos networks with 15 to 20 community organizations to come up with plans for individual campers, she said. That outreach process keeps some of them from returning to the woods, Welch said.
“It’s changed dramatically because of the help we can provide to people,” Welch said.
The best outcome in the process would be that some campers would move into housing, but at this point it’s difficult to know how much that has happened. Numbers show more campers are moving into the shelter system, Burke said. The city is working on several projects that expand permanent housing options.
Though anecdotally the new system is successful, there isn’t a way — yet — to gather data on how many people are making it from the camps to housing and how many are returning to the woods, said Jasmine Khan, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. The group represents individuals and organizations with a stake in the issue. There is hope the city might expand that program to include a more robust outreach effort and share data differently to help give a better sense of who is out there and what their needs are. There are a lot of organizations that can help, but the logistics are complicated.
“We need more data about the efficacy of abatement,” she said.
Who is in the woods? The data is scarce, the anecdotes plentiful.
Zack Fields, a state lawmaker who lives downtown, wrote a letter on behalf of eight legislators a few weeks ago, saying the city should do more to clear out camps, root out criminal activity and dispose of waste.
The way he sees it, there are some homeless people living in the camps who absolutely need help getting into housing, but there are also criminals out there chopping up bikes and moving stolen items. It’s the criminals the city needs to be doing a better job with, he said.
“I have certainly observed and my neighbors have observed an increase in encampments that seem to be used by criminals,” he said.
He doesn’t have crime data to point to, but he lived near a camp where he witnessed what appeared to be people moving stolen materials, he said. He was threatened by a man with a machete when he entered that camp, he said. Another time, he walked through a camp near Valley of the Moon and found lots of bicycle parts covered with spray paint. His constituents have similar stories, he said.
Welch, Rhoades and Burke have observed that the average age of campers has dropped over time. Rhoades and Burke also said the camps have become larger, concentrating lots of campers in one place. Rhoades described a camp with a solar panel, sophisticated in-tent wood stove and Keurig coffeemaker.
“The state of the homeless camps, they are worse, they are bigger, and people are bringing more and more things out,” Burke said.
There is also, at least anecdotally, more drug use in the camps than there used to be.
“Back in the day, it was bottles everywhere,” Welch said.
Anchorage Assembly members at Wednesday’s meeting described numerous complaints about large encampments, discarded needles, trash and human waste.
Are campers causing more crime?
Anchorage police don’t track whether crimes are linked, geographically, to homeless camps. But Lt. Jack Carson, who oversees Welch’s unit as well as the crime analysis and drug units, said there isn’t evidence to indicate that crime related to the homeless camps has increased.
“Is there criminal activity in these camps? Yes. These are people fighting to survive with nothing. They have to acquire the essentials for life and they don’t have jobs. They are doing that by scavenging, begging, borrowing, stealing,” he said.
Items police find in camps they suspect are stolen tend to involve heating, food, shelter, and drugs and alcohol, he said. There are also things related to transportation: bicycles, strollers, bike trailers. He stressed the people who have their bikes stolen should make a report with a serial number.
“We run pretty much everything with serial numbers, we rarely get a hit,” he said. “It’s hard to prove they are stolen. When we do get a hit, a lot of times the case numbers are so old, it’s hard to link back.”
Campers are most likely to be involved in smaller crimes, like stealing a propane tank off a deck, he said. The department has not seen an increase in them being involved in serious crimes such as robberies. More serious crimes require a vehicle. Campers tend not to have that kind of transportation, he said.
“I think people are upset and tired of all the crime going on in Alaska. We have had an increase in some crimes. They are looking for people and places to blame. The homeless community is an easy target,” he said. “They are getting a lot of blame for stolen stuff that I don’t believe is attributed to them.”
Why do there seem to be more homeless people?
There are a number of factors that have made the homeless population more visible, people working with the homeless say. Many wooded areas have been cleared of underbrush, making it harder to hide tents. The camps are also larger.
As the city clears camps in the woods, Carson said, the homeless are becoming more visible on the streets, and that, along with the influence of social media platforms like Nextdoor, may be fueling a public perception that the problem is worse, he said. Recently, the city cleared out camps along the Chester Creek greenbelt. After that, groups of people milling on Midtown streets grew, according to police officers, campers and others familiar with the situation.
“We’re abating more camps, and it’s going to be pushing them out in the public eye,” Carson said. “They are going to be on street corners instead of tucked away in the woods.”
It’s part of a process, he said. The abatements make camping less comfortable. Once people are visible, it’s easier to provide outreach. Outreach can get them off the street. In Carson’s opinion, the city has the most effective system for clearing camps and getting campers off the street so far.
What percentage of campers are mentally ill or dealing with addiction?
Back in the greenbelt, Welch and the group came upon a tent in the woods behind Sullivan Arena. Jeremy Chapas, 44, came out when Welch called to him. He’s been homeless for two years, he said. Something happened in his life then, but he didn’t want to talk about it, he said.
“I stopped working and paying bills,” he said.
He’s a veteran, he said, having served in the Navy. The hardest part of living in the camps is not having regular access to a shower, he said. He wasn’t sure what it would take to get him back into housing.
“I just don’t care,” he said, looking down at the ground in the entryway of his tent. “I could get hit by a truck, I don’t care.”
Vandenbos, the outreach worker, had been in contact with Chapas previously. There are a number of resources for veterans living on the street, she said. But for some people, it can take a number of contacts before they are ready to receive help.
The most common factor that makes it difficult to get people from the camps into housing is mental illness, she said. Oftentimes it comes paired with addiction. Of the 180 people contacted this year in camps, 89% were dealing with addiction or mental illness, according the Burke.
"When people think about homeless, they think of the alcohol and the drugs and the criminal activity,” Vandenbos said. “What they don’t see is the disheveled mentally ill.”
Because of problems at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, Anchorage does not have enough beds to accommodate the number of people in mental health crises, Burke said. Anchorage’s psychiatric emergency rooms are overflowing. Mentally ill people have been housed at the Anchorage jail. The city tried to fund more addiction treatment beds, which are also lacking, with revenue from the proposed alcohol tax that failed in November.
On the way back to their cars, the officers and Vandenbos encountered Kevin Burkett, who was lying in the grass with his bike and backpack. Burkett, 37, said he was going through heroin withdrawal. He’s a father of two, he said. He grew up in Grayling, a village on the Yukon River, and used to work construction. He’d been using heroin for five years and was lucky, he said, to be alive. He didn’t know where he’d sleep that night.
“We’re good people, man, we just got addiction, you know?” he said. “I’m gonna beat this drug and get off the street. ... I’m on my way in. In my head, I’m on my way.”
‘I am really sad at what my city has become’
John West is one of the administrators of a Facebook group called Anchorage Looks Like S***, which earlier this week had 47 members and is focused on Anchorage’s visible homeless problem. His frustrations begin at work, he said. He works near Brother Francis Shelter on East Third Avenue, where there are homeless people and homeless camps everywhere, he said. Dealing with break-ins and inebriated people is just relentless, he said.
Then there’s his neighborhood near the Campbell Creek greenbelt. He sees camps there when he walks his dog. His neighbors have had things stolen. Gas cans, bikes. Everyone is installing security cameras. It doesn’t feel like it used to, he said. There are also more panhandlers in places where they didn’t used to be, he said.
“The way it feels to me, I am really sad at what my city has become,” he said.
He was unsure what the city was doing to deal with campers, panhandlers and the homeless people he sees at work. The problem definitely seems worse than it used to, he said.
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