A city plan to offer a city-owned campground in Northeast Anchorage to unsheltered people as a temporary place to stay is drawing both new campers to the area and strong neighborhood backlash as the clock ticks down to the permanent closure of the city’s main indoor shelter.
With the Sullivan Arena shelter set to close for good Thursday, other indoor shelter sites full and the administration of Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson continuing to clear illegal encampments, attention is shifting to the Centennial Campground, a 84-site city-owned facility tucked into the woods behind Muldoon Road. On Tuesday, people leaving Sullivan Arena were given tents and taken by bus across town to the campground.
The city abruptly announced its repurposing of Centennial Campground on Friday as it cleared a large encampment of 40-plus tents and makeshift shelters in a Mountain View park. Since then, campers have been filtering into the campground as word spreads about a sanctioned camping spot for unhoused people — something that hasn’t existed before in Anchorage.
Now questions are swirling about the campground site’s future, with more than 100 people attending an often-heated emergency meeting on the topic Monday.
Speaking to a crowd at the meeting, the Northeast Community Council’s president, George Martinez Jr., lambasted the administration for opening the campground to homeless residents without notice or consultation of the council, calling it a breach of trust and a failure to show the community respect.
“What was the process behind the selection — behind all of this? Why was the community council not informed? What is the plan for our park and neighborhoods, and what is (being done) to address the long-standing issues of homelessness in our community beyond blindsiding our community council?” Martinez said.
‘An emergency decision’
The city is at the brink of what homeless service providers have said could be a crisis: Sullivan Arena closes in less than 48 hours and a full-scale shelter planned for the corner of Tudor and Elmore roads is not expected to open until late fall or early winter.
Monday evening’s meeting was held at Centennial Park, adjacent to the campground. The atmosphere was tense, and residents peppered speakers and each other with comments and occasionally heated words.
“As these people have no homes. Where do we expect them to go after their 14 days is up? Is there a plan in place for that?” asked Dave Buss, who said he lives less than a mile away.
The administration’s response: Not yet.
Bronson’s chief of staff, Alexis Johnson, told Buss the administration made “an emergency decision on Thursday.” There is no plan, yet, for what comes next.
The administration is considering options and may seek Assembly approval of an extension of the 14-day emergency use limit, she said.
Speaking into a megaphone, Johnson answered other questions from Martinez and the crowd of residents, many expressing anger and frustration.
Johnson told the council that the administration made the decision after a fire last week burned 13 acres in a wooded area near where some homeless people had been camping.
“People want to camp. We need to allow them to camp legally and safely and right now. We’re at risk of our city burning down,” Johnson said.
Some groups, including the Anchorage Houseless Resources Advisory Council, have long advocated that a sanctioned camping site be part of any future plans. “We dare to scream, ‘Anchorage needs a muni-authorized camp NOW more than ever,’” the group wrote in a newsletter earlier in June.
But at the meeting Monday, Assembly members and residents pushed back at the plan for Centennial, saying if wildfire danger is so extreme, the indoor Sullivan shelter shouldn’t close, forcing people outside.
“The administration has asserted this is about fire danger. I don’t believe that’s what the emergency is. The emergency is that they’re closing the Sullivan Arena, and they don’t have enough places to put them. And folks are going to end up here and they’re going to be stuck here for a while,” East Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar said.
At the campground
On Monday, Centennial Campground was only about half full, with new arrivals showing up via bike and on foot. But more were arriving by the hour.
Some of the campers had been living in Davis Park, said Brian Vaughan, a leader at the encampment that police attempted to dismantle Friday. A group decided to stay and defy the police abatement order. He said he was encouraging others to take up the city on its campground offer, but noted that it’s temporary — vouchers are good only until mid-July.
Daniel Steffensen heard about the campground opening to homeless campers through word of mouth.
He said he’s been homeless since he was released from incarceration about seven months ago. For a few days he stayed at Sullivan, but it was loud, crowded and felt dangerous, he said. He’s been camping illegally since February. He walked to Centennial from where he’d been camping near Chanshtnu Muldoon Park, about 2 miles away. Steffensen said when he got to the road just outside the campground, a man passing by in a vehicle handed him a tent out of the window.
He’d just set up that little blue tent near where he sat at a picnic table on Monday afternoon, smoking cigarettes with a small group of friends who had stopped by to visit and check out the campground.
Steffensen said he’s happy to have a place to be, legally, where he’ll be left alone, unbothered by city workers or police telling him he has to move.
He’ll stay as long as he’s allowed, he said. At Centennial there are showers and bathrooms, and quiet hours begin at 10 p.m. So far, everyone in the camp has been respectful and keeps to themselves, Steffensen said.
“We’re just here, just camping,” he said.
Down the campground circle, Bonnie Johnson walked her dogs. Johnson had been on a long, multistate RV trip that included two weeks of reservations at Centennial Campground, her base for exploring the Anchorage area.
On Friday, the city had notified her that unsheltered people would be moving into the campground and offered her a full refund for her reservation.
“I saw no reason to leave,” she said.
Johnson said she plans to stay at Centennial Campground another week.
“It’s a lovely spot, really close to everything,” she said.
Serena Garcia, her sister and 4-year-old niece occupied another spot at the campground.
“It’s a blessing for people to have a spot to legally be,” said Garcia, looking on as her niece played at the campsite, with her own green triceratops chair. They were trying to make it seem like an adventure for her, Garcia said.
“We’re making the best of it. We’re trying to make it fun for her,” she said.
She’s on a waitlist for an apartment nearby along Muldoon. She could get housing “any day now,” she said.
At Sullivan Arena
On Monday, Margaret Chiklak stood outside Sullivan Arena, among a dwindling number of people staying at the shelter. The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates 73 people at Sullivan have nowhere to go, down from their estimate of 95 a few weeks ago.
For her, the Thursday closure date was a looming worry.
Her husband wanted to go to Centennial Campground, but Chiklak worried about access to food and a place to do laundry. She said she is disabled and uses a walker. She doesn’t want to camp.
“I’m stressing,” she said. “I’m stressing every day.”
Chiklak said she tried to get in to the city’s new complex care facility at the former Sockeye Inn, but it’s already full. At this point, Chiklak and her husband aren’t even on a waitlist for housing or shelter, she said. She’s afraid she’ll end up on the street.
“We have no home. Nowhere to go. My husband keeps telling me to pray, that we’ll be OK,” she said. “But it’s like — I gotta see it to believe it.”
Privately run shelters, the city’s complex care facility and other housing options are full.
About 200 people are already living unsheltered in Anchorage, the coalition estimates.
The city is providing transportation from Sullivan to the sanctioned camping area, but it is not providing food, said Corey Allen Young, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, in an emailed statement. The Salvation Army is distributing tents to Sullivan residents who choose to move to Centennial Campground.
Some Sullivan shelter residents have already arrived at Centennial Campground. Abatements have so far continued. Now, residents, service providers and some Assembly members are wondering whether the city will continue abatements once Centennial is full, too — and whether the city can move the campers from the campground in two weeks with no shelter for them to turn to.