The tarps draped over tents and stretched over campsites were still dripping with rainwater on a quiet Monday morning at Centennial Park Campground in East Anchorage.
After several days of rain, the campground was soggy. Pants, shirts, jackets and sweaters, all sopping wet, hung from clotheslines that campers had strung beneath the canopy of trees. Mud and wet grass squelched beneath the feet of campers emerging from their tents.
Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration directed and bused houseless people to the campground, repurposing it as a sanctioned camping spot for the homeless last month as it shuttered the mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena.
As city officials, community groups and service organizations sound alarm bells about the policy, preparedness, safety and conditions at the campground, the experiences of the campers vary broadly.
At one site, James Keele hunched beneath a tarp stretched over a picnic table, heating water over a small stove to make coffee for his neighbor.
“All my stuff is soaking wet. I don’t even know how I’m going to get it dry,” he said.
Other campers, with tarps and better tents, stayed dry over the weekend, like Sapphire Tyone. She’s been houseless for a few years and came to the campground to stay with her mother. Her mom has camped in Anchorage for a long time, living outside during the winter, she said.
It’s going “pretty good,” Tyone said. “It’s a lot better when you are prepared for it.”
When the rain started last week, Tyone put up a large white canopy. She’s also set up a new tent for her mom.
Over the weekend, volunteers dropped off several dozen donated tarps to the roughly 200 houseless people staying at the campground.
Some of them moved to Centennial Park after they were left with no other option when the administration shut down the mass shelter, which opened at the start of the pandemic.
Others now at Centennial had already been camping in cars or illegal campsites in the city’s greenbelts and in parks. Many said they are happy they have access to water, bathrooms, showers, meals and donated supplies at the campground – and a place they can legally stay.
Many also say they prefer the campground to the former mass shelter. Others, like Keele, wish for housing or at least a roof and safer, secure shelter – desperate to get out as soon as they can.
Enormous political, financial and logistical problems remain unresolved. But among city officials, homeless providers and advocacy groups, there is a general consensus that the campground will remain the status quo until elected officials find more permanent housing and shelter options.
For now, the campground is the city’s largest and primary shelter option for people with nowhere to stay. Anchorage’s shelters and transitional housing sites are full, with waitlists.
‘Nothing but rain '
As the sun broke through the clouds over the campground and Monday morning shifted into afternoon, more campers began to stir, leaving their tents to grab lunch from the Bean’s Cafe food truck.
“Five days of nothing but rain,” said Troy Ifill, standing near a fire at his campsite. Nearby, his friend’s small child smiled and waved from the playground’s jungle gym. They’ve stayed dry, he said.
With the city’s burn ban recently lifted, campers have been scrounging for firewood to keep warm and to dry their clothes.
More tarps, ropes, tents, warm clothing, outdoor gear and camping supplies are needed. Some campers arrived with little to no gear and some with no camping experience.
Myron Haynes ate his lunch at a picnic table near his site -- a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fruit, cookie and bottle of water from Bean’s. For Haynes, staying at Centennial has been fine.
“I’m comfortable. And I’m Alaskan, so I’m OK,” he said.
Behind him, a large tent was half-erected, part of it crumpled to the ground and pooling with water.
“I was going to put up my tent, but the poles walked away,” he said. “So I’ll stay in my little hut back there.” Haynes pointed through the trees to a small brown tarp structure, round and low to the ground. It stays dry, he said.
Theft has continued to be a problem for many of the campers at Centennial, who have no way to secure their belongings when they leave their campsite.
When Willie Bowie first arrived at Centennial three weeks ago, he thought it was nice, he said.
“But now, with the drugs and fighting, I just don’t like it,” he said.
A fight at the campground on Sunday night drew a large police presence, and a man was arrested after he allegedly assaulted officers.
Last Thursday, a woman died after she was found unresponsive. Her death was a drug overdose, according to Roger Branson, a volunteer who has been staying on-site and running a resource center, helping to organize donation distribution. Several other campers that night also overdosed but were revived with Narcan and lifesaving efforts of medics, he said.
Sunday night’s fight involved a large group of campers who banded together to protect a campsite from a man who was out of control, said Branson, who was there during the commotion.
“I was really, really impressed with how the other campers, just at a distance, surrounded him and paid attention until the police could get here,” he said.
Campers have also been sharing supplies and helping each other stay dry, said Lara Creighton. She has been staying at Centennial since May, before the city repurposed it, after losing her home during an eviction, she said. So far, she has given away tarps, tents and clothing, she said.
One man was “sopping wet,” Creighton said. “I felt so bad for him. I was like ‘You can have this, this, and this, but that’s all I have right now.’”
Permanent housing and shelter a long way off
Homeless advocates called conditions at the camp dangerous and deplorable last week, calling on the administration to implement major changes in operations there.
As of Monday, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness will no longer direct the city’s outreach teams to the campground over safety concerns, according to Jessica Parks, chair of the Anchorage Continuum of Care Advisory Council. Parks is also director at RurAL CAP, which provides homeless services, including street outreach.
There is relatively little the 12 members of the Anchorage Assembly can do about Centennial.
“This is the administration’s responsibility,” said Felix Rivera, who chairs the Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee. “They gotta own up to it.”
The legislative body has relatively few tools at its disposal to intervene in operations at Centennial or even appropriate money while the Bronson administration insists the campgrounds are not part of a homelessness strategy and is not engaging in outreach or case management.
Rivera said Assembly members are being flooded with emails and calls from constituents who are overwhelmingly upset with what they hear about the encampment.
“People are pretty much enraged by the entire situation,” Rivera said. “They see in black and white the humanitarian crisis, the lack of coordination and just the inhumane way we are treating these individuals. And they see the mayor and the administration turning a blind eye.”
Rivera, along with Assembly members Kameron Perez-Verdia and Daniel Volland, are putting together a funding package to bring more temporary and permanent housing online to absorb homeless people. The proposal, which will need to be approved the majority of Assembly members, has five parts: $500,000 to remodel 60 rental units, $2 million to keep emergency shelters open through the end of the year; $1.5 million to pay for outreach services to connect people living in camps and shelters with resources; $3.4 million to fund the purchase of the GuestHouse Inn, ensuring that the 130 units currently being used as transitional housing become permanent supportive housing units; and $12.6 million to help facilitate the purchase of a hotel that will be converted into 120 units of permanent supportive housing.
While members of the Homelessness Committee estimate the package would secure 300 units of housing, none of it will happen overnight, at best becoming available before winter. (Of those 300, there are already about 130 people living in the units at the GuestHouse.)
In the shorter-term, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness sent a letter Friday to the administration saying that despite improvements at the site in recent days, there are significant threats to health and safety at Centennial.
“Most notably is any vetting of occupants or limits on the number of individuals allowed into Centennial campground,” ACEH said. “We continue to receive reports of dangerous activity and basic needs of occupants not being met. Without staffing the location with an experienced homelessness service provider 24/7, we do not believe the current arrangement can be made safe. And even with staffing, we urge the census at Centennial be reduced.”
The organization is proposing that the city lease the campground to a service provider that can operate “for purposes of community stabilization and intensive outreach.”
For years, individuals and organizations have pushed for there to be sanctioned campsites in the municipality as an alternative policy to concentrating people in overburdened shelters or letting them scatter to illegal encampments along trails. Even conceding there is a need for adjustments, supporters of the current approach to the Centennial campground say it is putting into practice an idea local leaders have long been pushed to enact.
“I do think that there is a need for people to legally camp,” said Alexis Johnson, Bronson’s chief of staff. “I do think there is room for a sanctioned camp in the future. I just don’t know if Centennial is the right camp.”
Johnson estimates she has spent 70 hours in Centennial over the last several weeks, talking with campers and helping out with patrols and operations to better understand the site’s needs.
“I don’t see, from my experiences, this ravenous camp that everyone else is talking about. I feel safe there. Yes it is loud, people do come alive at night … but I don’t think it’s as bad as people make it out to be,” Johnson said.
While many have raised concerns focused on negative activity in the encampment -- drinking, drug use, raucous partying late into the night -- she points out that much of it would still be happening elsewhere. In the campground, she said, there are at least Parks Department employees and security guards patrolling on shifts who can spot dangerous or unruly behaviors and help intervene.
Johnson said she hears many of the Centennial residents express thanks for a spot to camp without the threat of the city removing it. Many of the people staying there, she said, did not come from Sullivan Arena or other shelters but from camps on public land like the Chester Creek Trail and Davis Park.
“A lot of them have been continual campers,” Johnson said. “Before the campground opened, there was really no legal place for people to camp. It’s not a perfect fit for everyone, but it’s a good fit for some.”
Even though Centennial appears set to remain in place for the foreseeable future, it’s unclear what will happen when winter weather arrives.
“The mayor is committed to nobody freezing,” Johnson said. “I think you’ll see that (question asked) soon here: ‘What’s the plan for winter?’”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the housing units at the GuestHouse Inn are already being used as transitional housing. The $3.4 million proposed by Assembly members to fund the GuestHouse purchase would secure those units permanently as supportive housing.