Homeless advocates are describing “deplorable” and “dangerous” conditions at Centennial Campground, where about 200 unsheltered Anchorage residents are now staying.
Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration directed and bused houseless people there as it shut down the mass care homeless shelter at Sullivan Arena at the end of June.
Homeless advocates, campground volunteers, nearby residents and elected officials spoke of abysmal conditions at the park during an emergency Northeast Community Council meeting Thursday night.
Many are calling on Bronson officials for answers to the many questions swirling about the camp’s future, and also to implement measures to improve safety and for a plan to quickly move the camp’s most vulnerable residents out of the campground into shelter or housing.
“I can only describe the current conditions in the park as being deplorable,” said Roger Branson, chair of the Houseless Resources Advocacy Council, who for the last few weeks had been staying overnight in the camp and staffing a resource center.
On Thursday, just a few hours after the community meeting, a woman in the vicinity of the campground died, police said.
Police and fire department medics were called to the campground area after a woman was reported “non-responsive and breathing abnormally,” police said. Medics took life-saving measures but the woman died. Officers found nothing suspicious about her death, police said.
Police did not provide other details or say whether she was camping there or a visitor, or exactly where she was found.
Some of the social service providers and volunteers who have scrambled to help meet campers’ basic needs say they will have to stop working in the camp because of safety concerns.
Branson left earlier this week. He said it was no longer feasible to stay at Centennial Park, but that he hoped to return at least for the weekend.
“It’s been one trauma after another, turmoil, chaos — my heart breaks for these folks,” Branson said.
The two groups responsible for overseeing the network of homeless services in Anchorage have been sounding alarm bells, urging the city to make significant changes at the site.
On July 8, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness and the Anchorage Continuum of Care Advisory Council sent a letter to the mayor and Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance, listing safety concerns in addition to calling for multiple changes at the campground and major policy changes from city officials.
“Failure to implement immediate and significant changes in the operations leave Centennial a dangerous situation for all involved,” they wrote.
So far, they’ve received no response from anyone in the Bronson administration. Shelters in Anchorage are full with waitlists.
Already, a number of dangerous incidents have occurred at the camp. Bears tore through tents and entered while people were inside. Campers have had serious injuries and medical emergencies, with no on-site medical support or group in charge to quickly respond. Many lack phones or way to keep them charged, and so are unable to call 911 for help.
Homeless advocates and providers who have spent time on site, including Branson, say drug use, theft and violence are all on the rise. People with disabilities, families with children and other vulnerable people residing inside Centennial are at risk, they say.
“Not all of these folks are going to make it,” Branson said during Thursday’s meeting. ”This is rough. This is hardscrabble inside there.”
The mayor has repeatedly said the legal campground is not a city homelessness response.
Officials have said little of their plans for Centennial Park or how long they expect it to remain a legal camping area for the unsheltered.
The mayor’s office did not answer a series of questions from the Daily News about the city’s plans for the campground, plans for moving the unsheltered into shelters or long-term housing, and many other questions about the status of the city’s homeless initiatives.
Instead, a spokesman sent a statement on behalf of Bronson that applauded the administration’s efforts and criticized the coalition, the Assembly and news media.
“This administration has done more in regards to helping to solve homelessness than any administration in the history of the municipality,” Bronson said in the statement. “To state the administration and our amazing departments in the Municipality did not have a plan is a slap in the face to every single employee who has worked countless hours to help those in need over the past year.”
‘We need community support’
At least one other Centennial camper has suffered a serious injury, according to Branson.
During an interview, Branson described a terrifying scene on the night of July 4: Four black bears rampaged through the campground. One ripped into a tent with a 17-year-old boy inside, he said. Another had a man pinned down by his legs inside his tent. The man was able to get away, according to Branson, and not long afterward, police officers ran through the camp with shotguns, working with Parks and Recreation employees to try warding off the animals.
Amid the chaos that night, a disabled woman fell from her chair. She lay bleeding from her head until a fellow camper noticed her. Branson and the camper applied gauze to her wound, but Branson was unable to flag down police or parks workers, who were busy dealing with the bears. He called an ambulance, running to unlock the park’s gate to let it in, and the woman was rushed to the emergency room. The woman told an Anchorage Daily News reporter she is still hospitalized.
In their July 8 letter, the coalition and advisory council warned that without “substantial progress” from the city toward implementing their recommendations by July 14, it would be necessary to suspend services and support at the campground.
Coalition executive director Meg Zaletel, who also sits on the Assembly, said that as of Thursday’s deadline the group had received no response from the administration.
Still, they will not pull the outreach workers from Centennial just yet, Jessica Parks, chair of the advisory council, said Friday. They plan to continue outreach there at least for the first few days next week — as long as the camp remains safe for outreach teams in the daytime.
The city has made some improvements since the camp was first repurposed, such as adding more Parks and Rec staff and security, she said.
“Even if we weren’t making the steps together, some steps, some progress has been made,” she said.
Food is provided through donations. Otherwise, the nearest grocery store is an almost 2-mile walk away.
For the time being, Anchorage nonprofits are still able to feed people staying at Centennial who want it.
“Right now it’s all based on community support and donations,” said Lisa Sauder, CEO of Bean’s Cafe, which has been busily soliciting donations to supply three meals a day at the site. “We do not have any designated long-term funding for this project.”
Because the situation at Centennial Park is not technically a coordinated response to homelessness, there is no direct support from the municipality. Sauder said a significant share of the contributions that have kept people fed have been cash donations of a hundred dollars or less from regular citizens.
“We need community support,” Sauder said. “Every little bit helps.”
For most of Bean’s decades of work, she added, it operated with little or no assistance from the city government, and would continue to serve people as long as the organization is able, even if it means only being able to assemble peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
Other service organizations that are trying to help campers are less able to carry out their basic functions in the current environment.
“A lot of the unsheltered homeless feel distrustful of the entire process, so there’s a hesitancy to really even engage in relationships with outreach workers,” said Rob Marx, who is in charge of supportive housing efforts for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program.
RurAL CAP is one of several nonprofits in Anchorage that send teams of workers into camps and shelters in order to connect with people and help guide them toward housing resources.
Though far from ideal, they had systems for that kind of outreach when hundreds of people were inside Sullivan Arena, and have protocols for approaching small, scattered camps along trails, he said.
“It’s a different experience having this large of a group, all new, in one location,” Marx said. “It’s a substantially bigger homeless camp than we’ve ever had.”
It’s no more dangerous than some of the other homeless camps they go to, said Parks, who is also a director at RurAL CAP. The issue is its size — and its unpredictability, she said.
The number of campers fluctuates, though it has been well above 200 some nights. With much of it surrounded by woods, park and accessible by trails, it’s impossible to keep track of who comes and goes.
No show from Bronson administration
The Northeast Community Council unanimously passed a resolution Thursday night opposing the city’s repurposing of the campground.
“The NECC is strongly opposed to the continued emergency repurposing of Centennial Park, which is becoming a humanitarian crisis, and encourages the Mayor’s office to immediately begin relocating unhoused individuals, starting with the most vulnerable, to appropriate alternative housing/ sheltering,” the council said in the resolution.
The administration’s abrupt repurposing of the campground drew swift backlash and even outrage from neighbors and much of the Northeast Community Council, which received no warning of the change, leaving many furious at the lack of notice or consultation.
On Thursday, the mayor and his staff did not show up. The council had expected an update on the campground and the administration’s plans, according to its president, George Martinez.
“I just think being no show just means that they have no answers. If they had answers, they would be here,” said East Anchorage Assembly member Pete Petersen, who represents the area.
Instead, Bronson sent Martinez a letter in response, declining to attend. Martinez read the letter aloud to the crowd gathered at Centennial Park.
“My administration continues to address a critical need in our community by waiving the camping fees for all campers at Centennial Campground. As members of my administration have communicated to the Community Council — and you — before, this is not a homeless camp,” Bronson’s letter to Martinez said.