Anchorage

Is Anchorage’s sanctioned campground part of homeless response? Bronson officials say no, creating gap in responsibility

Centennial Park, centennial campground, homeless, homeless camp, homelessness

The Bronson administration plans to ask the Anchorage Assembly to extend the city’s 14-day limit on camping at an East Anchorage campsite where 200-plus homeless residents now live. Last week, the mayor’s administration directed and even bused unhoused people to Centennial Campground as it shut down the mass care homeless shelter at Sullivan Arena.

But officials with the mayor’s office dispute that what is happening now at Centennial Campground is part of the city’s homelessness response.

“Centennial Campground is not being repurposed and is not part of the homelessness response. Just as it’s been for decades, it’s a campground,” said the mayor’s spokesman, Corey Allen Young, by email.

“The Municipality is doing everything in our power to find shelter or find legal camps for people if they choose to do so,” he said.

The Bronson administration abruptly began directing unhoused people to Centennial Campground on June 24, citing extreme fire danger and the risk of fires from dozens of illegal camps around Anchorage. The decision happened under a week before the Sullivan shelter’s closure and as the city continued to clear illegal camps.

The administration’s insistence that the East Anchorage campground is not, in fact, a homelessness response underpins the decision to not provide services at the campground that were once available at Sullivan Arena.

The city has not provided on-site emergency medical services at the campground. It has not coordinated any food services or paid for the meals being delivered there. It has not staffed the camp with homeless service providers to oversee it, and it has established no contracts to provide outreach, case management and navigation into shelter or housing.

The campground includes families, children and people with disabilities, some who use walkers or wheelchairs. Some campers have serious mental health needs and some are suffering from substance use issues. Many of them came from Sullivan Arena, left with nowhere else to go when it closed June 30.

Centennial Campground is now functioning as the city’s only large, low-barrier site where people experiencing homelessness in Anchorage can legally stay. All of the privately run shelters in Anchorage are largely full, some with waitlists. The only low-barrier shelter that remains since Sullivan’s closure, Brother Francis in downtown, requires a referral for a spot. It’s full, with a waitlist, according to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

“The diverse needs of all these individuals lumped together in a dramatic shift of location of shelter to no shelter — to a campground — coupled with the environmental dangers that are unknown to vulnerable people — that seems like a human rights catastrophe,” said George Martinez, president of the Northeast Anchorage Community Council, the area where the campground is located.

Beans, Beans Cafe, Centennial Park, centennial campground

Rob Marx, director of client services at RurAL CAP, said he experienced “general shock” at the administration’s last-minute move on Centennial with “no apparent planning” and without the involvement of the community, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness and service provider groups.

“Honestly, it’s just surreal. I really — I can’t actually believe any of it,” he said.

[With services limited, homeless residents at Anchorage’s Centennial Campground begin to adjust to a new reality]

It was only after homeless campers had several bear encounters that the city bought bear bins for food storage. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game killed four bears at Centennial this week after they entered tents looking for food.

The city has increased security from one guard at night to two guards on site day and night, according to Young.

“We have also increased staffing of other employees, day and night, who are very experienced working with Anchorage’s population of individuals experiencing homelessness,” he said by email.

The only homeless services and most of the resources being provided to Centennial campers now are from a patchwork of organizations and groups that are stepping up to help, without explicit direction from the city.

 Centennial Park Campground

‘Massive increase’ in unsheltered people post-Sullivan

No one is sure how long Centennial Campground will remain open to the homeless. Administration officials, Assembly members, Centennial campers and homeless service providers are all asking the question.

The lack of a clear timeline for Centennial is making it more difficult for social service groups to organize a response, said Jessica Parks, a director at RurAL CAP, a nonprofit providing homeless services, including camp outreach.

“You can’t dedicate resources to an unknown,” she said. “So if I had one message I would want out there — somebody tell us how long this is going to last. How long is Centennial Park going to be free?”

Mayor Bronson on Friday morning met with his chief of staff, Alexis Johnson, and newly appointed Parks and Recreation director Mike Braniff inside the campground’s office.

The administration is planning to request that the Assembly consider an extension for camping at Centennial, Johnson said. The Assembly holds its next meeting on July 12, two days before the 14-day time limit is up.

“We’ll have to work with the Assembly and our community partners but hopefully figure out a happy medium for all involved,” Johnson said.

It’s not clear exactly how many people are staying there. The number shifts daily, Braniff said. He estimated 210 people stayed there Thursday night.

Some Assembly members and other community leaders say the administration is using the fire danger as a pretext for opening Centennial as a stopgap measure in the wake of Sullivan’s closure.

“If it was only this fire danger that gives them the emergency reasoning to open Centennial Campground, well, then I have to ask, where were they expecting these folks to go once the Sullivan closed?” said Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who represents East Anchorage.

A planned East Anchorage shelter will not be finished until late fall or early winter, administration officials have said. The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimated this week that 350 people are living in Anchorage without shelter, up from 200 a few weeks ago — camping, living in vehicles or sleeping in places not suited for human habitation. That number doesn’t account for the people newly becoming homeless and who have no shelter to turn to.

And each month, hundreds access a part of the city’s homelessness response system for the first time. In May, 488 individuals were recorded as new entries in the system, though not all needed shelter and some only briefly.

“When we saw the Sullivan Arena close, we saw a massive increase in the number of folks that were unsheltered across Anchorage,” said Clark Halvorson, president and CEO of United Way of Anchorage.

“I, as well as a lot of our partner organizations, community members, really see it as as a crisis and a crisis that really requires our government and our community to come together and develop a real, coordinated plan,” Halvorson said.

United Way’s 211 line operators often have no resources or shelter to direct callers to, he said. It then becomes a conversation about the safest place to park a car or to camp, he said.

Several Assembly members are blasting the administration for closing the shelter at Sullivan Arena and leaving many people nowhere to go but Centennial Campground.

“You talk to 90% of the rest of Anchorage, and they see this as a homelessness response. And so we should treat it as a homelessness response. That means we should have coordinated services — but none of that is happening, because the path that the administration is taking is completely, I think, out of touch with reality,” said Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the Committee on Housing and Homelessness.

The administration must involve experts and local providers in standing up resources and working toward a better, safer solution, he said.

“Otherwise, who knows how long Centennial Campground is going to be used as a homelessness response? Are we going to have another Sullivan, where two years from now we’re going to be talking about how we can close Centennial Campground as a sanctioned campground? I certainly hope not,” Rivera said.

[Waiting for a ride to a new life outside the closed Sullivan Arena]

Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant called the situation “outrageous” and the move to Centennial a “cruel and unusual” use of government power by the Bronson administration.

“We put them out in a place with no access to groceries, no access to fundamental basics,” Constant said, though he noted that Parks and Recreation staff are going above and beyond their normal duties to attend to the camp. “It’s all ad hoc and after the fact. This shit should have been done a month ago. There’s no reason they should have waited until this crisis and then revealed it a few days before and then had done nothing. It’s just literally intentional cruelty. There is no other way to see it.”

Support for maintaining a legal encampment

Still, there are many who do want a space to camp legally. The Anchorage Houseless Resources Advocacy Council has long pushed for the city to stand up an authorized camp for unsheltered people. The group sent the Assembly and administration a letter on Monday asking for the campground to remain open to the houseless for at least six months. Several campers have said they prefer the freer, spacious atmosphere of the campground to the commotion and noise of the Sullivan shelter.

The advocacy council has set up a community center in Centennial’s campsite No. 10. On Friday, a large whiteboard at the campsite listed resources, meal times and a growing list of suggested names for the community of houseless campers: Little Bear’s Lunchbox, Hopefully Home Campground and Tent City, among other suggestions.

The council is one of several community groups that has scrambled to cobble together the social services and resources that many say the city should be providing, or at the very least, that the city should have planned and coordinated weeks ago.

Bean’s Cafe is serving three meals a day at the campground, of its own initiative.

Beans, Beans Cafe, Centennial Park, centennial campground

“We’re really trying to mitigate the risk factors of fire and of bear encounters with people,” said Lisa Sauder, CEO of Bean’s. “The best way to do that is to make sure people have a ready-to-eat meal that they can eat and dispose of the leftovers and not be taking food into their camps. We felt it was critical for everyone’s safety that we be able to do that.”

The nonprofit needs food and monetary donations to keep the service going, and volunteers to help serve the meals and keep the campground clean, she said.

On Friday morning, outreach workers from the for-profit 99 Plus 1 were volunteering at the campground, working to connect campers to resources they need and get them entered into the Alaska Homeless Management Information System.

The advocacy council was working to establish a distribution site and plan for donated camping supplies.

The Northeast Anchorage Community Council is planning another emergency meeting next Thursday to discuss developments at Centennial.

“The human danger has been so extreme, at so many levels. There are children and vulnerable people here in the camp. And it’s unfolding before our eyes in so many dangerous ways,” said Martinez, the community council president. “Obviously, we know that community will help to lead the solutions. But this cannot be the solution for everyone. And I think we really want to see a plan to get the most vulnerable people out now. ... They shouldn’t be here. They need to have resources and care.”

• • •

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. She earned her degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. Contact her at egoodykoontz@adn.com.

Sponsored