Jimmie Hartley hadn’t yet set up the tent he’d received from the Salvation Army when the sudden sound of an airhorn pierced through Anchorage’s Centennial Campground. A black bear and two cubs had entered the campsite just southwest of his own.
Hartley arrived at Centennial from the city’s soon-to-shutter Sullivan Arena homeless shelter on Wednesday afternoon. He brought with him a bicycle and two large, transparent garbage bags full of belongings on one of the People Mover buses the city is using to move people from the shelter to the campground.
Sullivan Arena, which has sheltered hundreds of people nightly for more than two years, is closing Thursday. Hartley is one of dozens of houseless people who will now camp in the city-owned campground in Northeast Anchorage that Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration abruptly repurposed as a legal camping site for the homeless. The sanctioned campground is a stopgap measure, as indoor shelter sites are full and the administration continues to clear illegal campsites, citing extreme fire danger.
Hartley rushed across the camp loop to watch as other campers and Anchorage Health Department workers attempted to shoo the bears away with the airhorn, shouts and clapping.
Cubs tumbled through belongings stashed outside a tent, pulling at the tent’s fabric. The sow stood on her hind legs, undeterred by the efforts of campers and city staff, and pulled a yellow tote bag out of the pile of belongings before the trio slipped away into the bushes and trees.
Hartley wasn’t surprised by the bear encounter. He plans to string fishing line hung with cans filled with gravel around his site to warn him of approaching bears, he said.
“That’s what happens when you keep food in a tent — they must have food over there,” he said.
Others moving to Centennial are not as experienced.
Many of the new arrivals from Sullivan Arena are moving outside with only the bare minimum for gear. The few Parks and Recreation workers running the campground and the park’s single security guard are suddenly tasked with figuring out how to keep the transformed campground running safely.
Inside the campground’s office Wednesday afternoon, newly appointed Parks and Recreation Director Mike Braniff and campsite staff were discussing the host of challenges they now face as the campground shifts from hosting families camping in RVs and tents to hosting people with few supplies, little camping experience and some with mental and physical health challenges and substance abuse issues.
The first and most pressing matter is determining how many people the campground can safely accommodate, Braniff said.
“We’re also very focused on, you know, how do we prevent a fire here? What are our policies, what are the rules? Right now, we’re not allowing any fires here,” he said. “Food safety and bear safety is at the top of our list.”
A little while later, campground workers, Braniff and a security guard listened as Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Dave Battle warned that they would face further bear encounters without strict enforcement of safety measures.
“This right here is a bear factory,” Battle said, pointing at the Chugach Mountain range and the nearby Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson wilderness area.
“Just the nature of the change in the makeup of this campground — it’s really concerning,” Battle said. “I don’t have anything magical to say, I just really want to continue working with camp staff and brainstorming on how to minimize the attractiveness in this camp” to bears.
The city will get bear-safe food storage bins, but it’s not clear when they’ll arrive or how, logistically, they’ll be shared.
A few campsites away from Hartley, Margaret Chiklak and Rochester Kemp sat at a picnic table eating ham and cheese sandwiches, wraps and snacks from a plastic grocery bag distributed that afternoon from a Bean’s Cafe food truck parked nearby in the playground.
Despite Chiklak’s reservations earlier this week, the couple had moved from Sullivan Arena to the campground on Tuesday, with just a few bags of clothing.
After taking a shower in the campground facility — the water was “almost warm,” and not as clean as Sullivan showers, Kemp said — Kemp set about putting together a small green cot, also provided by the Salvation Army to people leaving Sullivan Arena.
He said he wanted to get something set up for Chiklak, who uses a walker, to rest on.
“I get disability, so I’m hoping I could get something like an air mattress,” Chiklak said, her walker parked in reach, next to the bench where she sat. “I messed up my back and my lower back is — I can barely walk sometimes.”
Chiklak said she feels lucky to have family in Anchorage and a friend who has helped out the couple with a few supplies. Another woman came to the camp with nothing, she said.
“No blankets or anything,” Chiklak said.
Two sleeping bags were tucked into their small, two-person tent — “claustrophobic,” Chiklak said.
On Tuesday night, they spent their first night inside the tent, sleeping on top of the bags on the ground, she said. “Getting up from the ground, that’s real hard,” she said.
Kemp bought a bigger three-person tent from a friend who had just snagged a room at the Aviator Hotel — another spot where the city is housing people who are homeless. One of the poles for that tent is unusable.
Chiklak hopes they can get camping supplies like a tarp, jugs for water, a cooler and a stove or grill to cook food with the $150 voucher she’d just received for the Salvation Army store, she said. She had no bug spray, bear spray or sunscreen.
For now, she has a flimsy 12-ounce water bottle to refill and no way to cook food. With the burn ban in effect, campfires are not allowed.
She’s afraid of attracting bears and doesn’t have a way to keep food on hand. Chiklak heard a commotion on Tuesday night as bears went inside a nearby tent, drawn by the scent of food.
Some of the campers have vehicles to safely keep food in, like Dolly and Michael Simien, who are searching the city’s expensive housing market for an apartment. The couple just moved to Anchorage from Nondalton with a puppy and a small child, before the campground was repurposed, and they plan to camp at Centennial until they manage a fresh start.
Others at Centennial have arrived from illegal campsites after police and city workers cleared them out. Still others came on their own, after hearing they could stay there legally with access to water and bathrooms.
Campers can stay at Centennial for 14 days on a city voucher. After that, campers — and city officials — say they don’t know what comes next. City officials have said they are still working on a plan. Construction of a planned shelter will not be complete until late fall.
“Fourteen days — I don’t know what happens after that,” said Arthur Smith, who arrived Wednesday from a recently cleared encampment in a Mountain View park. “I’ll stay as long as I can. I’ve been camping for five or six years. I want housing.”
As of Wednesday morning, 22 of 84 campsites were available, plus two group sites, Braniff said. A total of 74 tents were up in the campground, he said.
The empty sites filled steadily throughout the day as People Mover buses dropped off more people leaving Sullivan Arena.