The city of Anchorage’s request to use the Alaska National Guard for homeless response amid the COVID-19 crisis has been denied.
In a request last Friday to the State Emergency Operations Center, officials asked for National Guard assets to patrol the mass shelter complex at Sullivan and Ben Boeke arenas, surrounding neighborhoods and “high-volume homeless areas,” including sections of the Chester Creek and Campbell Creek trails where unsheltered people often stay.
“Request 24/7 patrols every hour throughout the Boeke/Sullivan Mass Shelter complex from 16th Avenue on the north; Gambell Street on the east; 20th Avenue and the Chester Creek Trail to the south; and A Street to the west,” the request reads.
Officials also asked for Guard troops “to support homeless camp cleanup efforts, trash collection, and removal” in coordination with municipal employees.
The request was denied in part because “homeless camps were preexisting to the pandemic,” according to Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead of the National Guard. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, federal coronavirus relief funds can only be used to cover expenses incurred on Dec. 31, 2019, or after, she noted.
Rather than a National Guard deployment, the city should “consider employing a private security contractor to provide additional unarmed security,” Olmstead said.
The Alaska National Guard is a last resort when other state, private and nonprofit resources are unavailable or unable to respond to an emergency or disaster.
Currently, the National Guard in Alaska is focusing on organizing private air ambulances and other aviation resources to move patients around the state, particularly from rural communities to regional hubs where they can get advanced medical care, said Jeremy Zidek, spokesman for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Conditions for the city’s roughly 1,100 homeless residents shifted dramatically with the pandemic’s arrival. Anchorage’s largest shelter, Brother Francis, reduced the number of people it could serve because of federal guidance recommending 6 feet of space between cots or mats. Bean’s Cafe, an overflow shelter next door, closed and moved its operations to the Sullivan and Ben Boeke arenas, which the city opened as mass shelters on March 21.
Relocating shelter operations has disrupted residential areas near the arenas and led to the expansion of homeless camps along the nearby Chester Creek greenbelt. And areas near Brother Francis along East Third Avenue “have become heavily populated with tents and campers,” according to the city’s request.
“There are public safety, public order, and public health concerns about the level of unsheltered homeless individuals establishing camps on public property, including green belts, municipal land and other areas,” it reads.
During a community briefing on Wednesday, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said Anchorage should be proud that it stood up a mass shelter that can serve over 450 people a night with adequate spacing, food, medical and social services during a pandemic.
But he acknowledged not everyone is using those services during the public health emergency.
“This is not an easy population to deal with. A lot of people are on the streets or in the camps because we have a broken safety net in this country and in this state and in this city. We don’t have the mental health and the behavioral health systems that we should have in place. We don’t do the drug and alcohol treatment. All of those things are chronic failures. And we see the consequences of that in our homeless population on an ongoing basis,” Berkowitz said.
Anchorage is struggling to address those problems, he said.
On Tuesday, the city expanded a “hunker down” emergency order to include everyone, including the homeless.
The order applies “to everyone in Anchorage by mandating that everyone stay home as much as possible, and that home may include a residence, a temporary residence, or a shelter,” according to a city statement Wednesday.
Berkowitz referenced the change in his community update.
“Regardless of where you are in the city, we want everyone to know that the hunker down rules apply to you. And that everybody here has not just a responsibility but a role to play in trying to make sure this community stays safe,” he said.
How the city will apply the order to campers in greenbelts, parks and vacant lots remains unclear. Questions about enforcement of the expanded order to the mayor’s spokeswoman and other city officials went unanswered as of late Wednesday afternoon.
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