A small army of Anchorage city workers and police officers on Friday began clearing an extensive encampment at a Mountain View park. While the clearing happened, people there were told they could go to an East Anchorage campground that, with little notice, Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration has decided to use for sanctioned camping for homeless individuals this summer — a move that is drawing immediate outcry from community leaders.
Centennial Campground, which is run by the city, is now being provided as an option where homeless individuals can stay, according to Corey Allen Young, a spokesman for the mayor’s office. Young said high fire danger was a key driver behind the decision — a wildland fire on Thursday in East Anchorage that grew to an estimated 13 acres was in an area with many homeless camps, city officials said, although they said they do not yet know the fire’s cause.
“Parks and Recreation has been closely monitoring the fire danger and associated public safety risks of camps located outside sanctioned campsites,” Young said in an email. “As such, the department has developed vouchers for those who choose to camp at Centennial Campground, so they are able to do so in a legal and safe manner during this extremely high fire danger situation. This location has bathroom facilities, sanctioned camping locations, as well as security to ensure any uptick in campers are adequately served.”
George Martinez Jr., president of the Northeast Community Council, said he and others received no notice about the city’s new plans for Centennial Campground.
“I am disappointed that so many community members who have had great relationships with the municipality for many years on difficult issues were totally left out of the process and feel bamboozled,” Martinez said in an interview Friday evening.
The community council has called an “emergency meeting” for Monday night to discuss the issue. City officials have been invited to the meeting, Martinez said.
Other area leaders Friday called on the mayor’s office to reverse its plan, raising a variety of concerns. Anchorage Democratic state Sen. Bill Wielechowski and East Anchorage Assembly members Pete Petersen and Forrest Dunbar sent a letter to Bronson, saying, “had your administration provided notice to the public and consulted with the Northeast Community Council, you would have learned that there are numerous reasons why Centennial Park is an inappropriate location for locating a homeless campsite. While it is vitally important to address homelessness in Anchorage, this plan would create an unsafe environment for both campers and nearby residents.”
The decision to use Centennial Campground in this way was made “over the past few days,” Young said in an interview. Security that has previously existed on-site will continue, he said, adding that no additional city funds are being devoted to the campground. It will be available “as long as fire danger is still going on,” Young said.
The Centennial Campground contains “84 sites which could hold at least two tents on each site,” Young said in a follow-up email. “These sites are the size of an RV. Also consider the amount of people that (could go) in a tent.”
The development adds to increasingly fraught discussions surrounding Anchorage’s ongoing effort to address homelessness. In less than a week, the Bronson administration intends to end Sullivan Arena’s use as a mass shelter, where it has housed hundreds of people at a time during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Homeless advocates have been warning that despite ongoing efforts to add to shelter capacity, shelter space is currently severely limited. The Bronson administration disputes that assessment. Additionally, previously fruitful talks between the Bronson administration, the Assembly and other groups working on homelessness this month broke down to the point where a pair of facilitators brought on to aid the negotiations quit.
Meanwhile, questions have been swirling about the city’s continued efforts to clear camps like the one in Mountain View at Davis Park. A federal court decision means the city can’t legally do so if there are no alternative shelter sites available.
[Previous coverage: Inside an Anchorage homeless camp slated to be dismantled]
The city had posted abatement notices at Davis Park on June 14 for more than 40 camps in the area. When city workers and police arrived Friday, some people living there began to move. Others said they weren’t interested in leaving — at least not immediately. Camp residents, frustrated about the fate of their belongings and questioning the abatement’s legality, shouted back and forth with Anchorage police officers as city parks workers bundled campers’ possessions into black garbage bags and loaded them into a bank of city trucks that had driven into the woods.
Young, with the mayor’s office, was at Davis Park while the camps were being cleared. He cited the soon-to-close Sullivan Arena as one of the places people could go that could legally justify the clearing.
What happens on June 30?
“Right now, there’s a lot of things in that are in play, working with community partners, working on solutions to increase capacity,” Young said. “On June 30, I can give you more details.”
People at Davis Park on Friday were given business-card-sized vouchers good for 14 days at Centennial Campground, which is a few miles away from the encampment. In addition to the trucks, a city bus was on hand to help with the move.
Ron Bryan was packing up his tent Friday at Davis Park, periodically checking up on his wife, Pamela, who uses a wheelchair. Bryan said they decided to go to Centennial Campground, and city workers helped load their belongings into a pickup truck. They had been at Davis Park for about three weeks; before that, they had been camping behind Sullivan Arena, he said.
Brian Vaughan, who referred to himself as a “father figure” to the other people living at Davis Park, was at the center of the confrontation with police officers during Friday’s clearing. He said he wasn’t sure if he was going to go to the Centennial Campground. Vaughan planned to stick around for the time being, and wait until he heard from another woman who was moving to the campground Friday before he would decide whether to use a voucher to live there.
“It’s good for two weeks, and then they’re not sure what’s going to happen after that,” Vaughan said.