Mornings at the Centennial Campground are the quiet part of the day.
“This is OK, this isn’t bad out here,” said James Keele, sitting at a picnic table between his tent and his dinged-up Honda on Wednesday. “It’s like this about every day until about 9:30, 10, maybe 11 at night.”
That, Keele said, is when the partying, drinking, drugging, shouting, and fighting begin, crackling erratically through most of the night.
“I don’t feel safe at all,” Keele said. “I barely sleep.”
Keele is in his 40s, his salt-and-pepper hair cut trim. His black dog Atticus was with him, pacing back and forth on a leash. Keele was one of the first campers to arrive at the city-owned Centennial Campground toward the end of June, and has since seen conditions worsen as more than 170 people have moved to a property that up until recently catered to recreational campers, many of them in RVs. Now, all 86 official gravel-padded spots are filled in with tents, vehicles, propane tanks, bicycles, tarps, food, bear bins, cookware, strollers and water jugs. More tents speckle a grassy area designated for women only and spill back toward the woods.
Since the closure of the emergency mass care shelter at Sullivan Arena last week, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration has transferred people and municipal resources to the campground, even though the area is not set up to function as a homeless shelter and lacks basic amenities, services and infrastructure to serve the sudden population boom. Members of the Anchorage Assembly, nonprofits and social services providers have been caught largely unaware by the sudden change in policy, and in the absence of plans or communication from the administration, groups have begun setting up improvised and ad hoc systems for handling people’s needs. According to data presented to the Anchorage Assembly by public safety officials Wednesday, calls for emergency medical services and the Anchorage Safety Patrol have increased significantly to the campground and surrounding areas since it was repurposed.
Keele is adjusting the best he can, but inevitably there are problems. If he leaves anything out, it’s liable to get ripped off. With just two hired security guards working at any given time, arguments drag on, sometimes for hours. The bathrooms are foul.
“No toilet paper, every toilet’s overflowing,” Keele said. “I don’t know what kind of sick person would rub poop all over the stalls, but somebody did that. It’s just unsanitary.”
Food, too, has proved a tricky variable to account for at Centennial Park. The area butts up against the Chugach Mountains, an area lousy with bears, who are bold coming into the camp, drawn by smells sizzling off cookstoves and grills, and foraging freely. Keele said he threw a stone at one that had ripped open a tent to ransack a woman’s cooler, where she’d stored ribs and meat. By Wednesday afternoon, everyone seemed to have a bear story, the most dramatic being the four shot dead by state officials the day prior. But no one is sure what to do about them: People need to eat, and in spite of the 80 bear-proof food containers purchased by the municipality for campers, snacks and donated meals will continue to be kept on tables, in tents and atop trash heaps.
A nonprofit has been dispensing food. Occasionally, volunteers drop off hot meals. Given the unpredictability of food, people took to hoarding what they could get ahold of and stashing it in their tents, according to Roger Branson, co-chair of the Homeless Resources Advisory Council, who has been on site for much of the time since Centennial was repurposed.
People staying at the campground, Branson said, have to be convinced that they can rely on essential goods and services in order to start addressing longer-term issues. “It takes time for people to see that that is so,” he said.
Branson said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the sudden switch from Sullivan Arena to Centennial Campground could better help people with nowhere else to go. He estimated there are 170 people staying at the site, with up to a hundred more circulating through over the course of a given day. The looming uncertainty of whether the mass care site in the arena would suddenly shutter has given way to an arrangement at Centennial with no clear end date yet announced by City Hall. As the dust of the last few weeks has settled, Branson said, that’s allowed some people to gain a measure of stability underfoot, though it’s a configuration rife with potential pitfalls.
“Individuals moving in here are in significant turmoil,” he said. Still, he sees the camp as an opportunity to help guide people toward improved circumstances.
The footprint of organizations and public agencies on site is extremely light. On Tuesday, Bean’s Cafe announced it would be providing three meals each day of the week, including hot foods that wouldn’t require heating or open flame. A few parks department employees were on hand. There are no police or credentialed mental health professionals on site. A small, nebulous number of nonprofit employees and volunteers circulated. Two white awnings and a dry-erase board set up at campsite No. 10 demarcated a comfort station, a kind of unofficial community hub where around a dozen people were gathered, sporadically helping with small chores or handling donations people have dropped off.
A lone volunteer, who declined to provide her name or speak on the record, triaged a wide range of requests, doing her best to direct people to what limited capacity there was to help. One woman walked up asking to stay at the campground, wondering if there were any tents. The volunteer told her there were not, but pointed to the general area she should install herself in case a tent became available. Another woman showed up in a Subaru and announced to the volunteer she had a plan to help: If campers could get themselves to the bus stop, there was service directly to a job center where they could have resumes reviewed and secure employment. The volunteer told the do-gooder she could post information on the whiteboard. Three young men strode by and said they were on-hand to help. The volunteer traded contact information with them.
“We have no access to hygiene,” said Brian Sharpe, 54, sitting at a picnic table at the edge of the hub site with a few friends.
“We don’t have no towels,” one friend said, looking up from a crossword puzzle.
Compassionate residents wanting to help have consistently shown up with donated supplies, Sharpe said, but many don’t fit with what campers actually need.
“They drop off sun tan lotion, and lotion-lotion. We need stuff like toothpaste, toothbrushes, razors,” he said.
Overall, Sharpe and his friends, all of whom had previously stayed at Sullivan Arena, prefer the campground. There’s no curfew. There’s space enough that if someone is being noisy, argumentative or annoying, you can simply move off elsewhere for a bit of peace.
“It’s a little more private,” Sharpe said. “At Sullivan you could only go 50 feet and still hear ‘em being idiots.”
But there are more than a few new problems. For one, the distance and time it takes campers to get to basically anywhere else. The campground at the far eastern edge of the Anchorage Bowl is tucked between the woods and the highway. The nearest place to get food is a Holiday gas station a 20-minute walk away. It takes longer, said Joseph Link, seated across from his friends, if you’re hauling a trash bag full of clothes to the laundromat in the same vicinity.
“Mail is pretty much the biggest thing right now,” Link said. For him to pick up any of his general mail, he has to go to the post office in Fairview, 6 1/2 miles away. Many of the social services people need, and the public transit to get there, are a hike from Centennial.
Without an address or place to have mail sent, campers can’t do basic things to help themselves like pick up checks or file paperwork for housing and benefits applications.
Both men were hoping they could get ahold of bus vouchers. Not just for mail — Sharpe was in need of a doctor’s visit.
“Somebody stole my pain medicine,” he said, rattling near-empty pill bottles fished out of a black backpack. “Time to reload.”
The other impediment staring him down, though, was a phone. He didn’t have one. Sharpe wants to get into housing, but that’s a lot harder to do if a program or case manager can’t contact you. GCI needed $27 to get him hooked up with its federally funded program for low-income Alaskans. But he didn’t have it. Or a way to pick up mail. Or a bus pass.
“I can’t do most of the stuff I’m supposed to do because I have no way to get there,” Sharpe said. “I take one step forward and I get pushed two steps back.”
Even if residents do have phones, it’s an ongoing ordeal just to keep them charged. Though some of the campsites are wired for RV hookups, many don’t have a power source at all.
“We’re trying to figure out housing right now,” said Frank Cleveland, sitting beside his girlfriend, Nellie Alexie. People had stopped by that morning to talk with them about their housing options, but the couple had no way to follow up. “They tell us to call but we ain’t got no way to call. No phone.”
They try borrowing devices from friends, but “they have (a) hard time finding place to charge their phones,” Alexie said.
There are a few outlets inside the bathrooms, but Alexie said that brings a whole new set of risks. She’d heard about a man in the women’s shower recently. And another more troubling story about a woman who was sexually assaulted.
“Every time my honey goes, I always go with her,” Cleveland said, flicking open the blade of the knife he carries as a precaution when they walk beyond their campsite at night.