The Salvation Army will provide “on-site management of client care” at Centennial Campground, where about 200 unsheltered Anchorage residents now live after Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration began directing and busing people there late last month.
The administration announced the change in a written statement Tuesday morning, and said it’s an “effort to facilitate streamlined coordination and communication.” The Salvation Army also confirmed the coming operation at the campground on Tuesday.
“Over the next 48 hours, The Salvation Army will begin collaborating with current stakeholders to seamlessly integrate the many services being offered there, including meals, case management, donations, supplies, and more,” the mayor’s office said.
The administration abruptly repurposed the city campground as a free, sanctioned site for the homeless, directing and busing houseless people there from illegal camps and the former mass shelter at Sullivan Arena, which it closed at the end of June. But the mayor’s office has disputed that Centennial is part of the city’s homelessness response and has not paid for or provided any services for homeless people at the campground.
That left many social service providers scrambling to meet basic needs of the houseless campers, without explicit direction from the city.
The Salvation Army is stepping in to help with three specific areas: coordinating the community efforts, donation management and case management, Division Secretary Kevin Pope said in a Tuesday interview. They hope to relieve some of the pressure and stress on those groups and volunteers, he said.
The Salvation Army does not have a contract with the city or any other organization, he said.
“This is just something that we feel compelled to do,” Pope said. “... We know it’s not one agency that’s going to be able to do everything out there. So how can we come alongside and make a better community effort?”
Pope said the Salvation Army is surveying and triaging campers to find out what donations are needed and then coordinating to get those goods to campers.
The Salvation Army will likely set up a donation center for Centennial in Anchorage, away from the campground, where goods can be sorted and delivered to campers by their needs, he said.
“We’re also going to come in and help with some case management. I’m hoping to work with the agencies that have been out there or other agencies that want to help with the goal of helping those who want it, as far as trying to find housing, trying to find other resources or community resources to help them,” he said.
In its statement, the mayor’s office did not offer specifics on what the on-site management of client care at Centennial will entail. It did not immediately respond to emailed questions and an interview request from the Daily News.
Many people arrived to Centennial Campground with little to no gear for camping or the elements, and some have disabilities, serious mental health needs and are suffering substance use issues. Many were left with no other option but to camp when the city closed its mass shelter, which it opened at the start of the pandemic.
So far, volunteers have been helping to coordinate donations, and Bean’s Cafe stepped up to provide meals delivered daily to the campground, among the other patchworked efforts to help.
Pope said the Salvation Army will not be instituting or enforcing rules at the campground, or staffing it 24/7.
“The muni has stated that it’s still a campground, that all rules that would apply to the campground still apply,” Pope said. Salvation Army will not be responsible for monitoring, he said.
A staff member will likely be on-site Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., acting as a point person, he said. Other staff and volunteers will be on-site as needed to deal with the evolving needs and various efforts at Centennial, he said.
That’s taking a much different role than the organizations which, at different times, managed the Sullivan mass shelter. Management of the Sullivan was paid for by the city and implemented via city contracts that included stipulations for client-to-staff ratios, plans for safety measures and other specifics.
The mayor’s office has not said how long it plans to continue sanctioned camping at Centennial for homeless residents. City code places a 14-day time limit on camping in city parks, but the limit has passed.
Homeless advocates, Assembly members, service organizations and community groups have all sounded alarm bells over conditions and safety at the campground. They’ve called on the city for plans to move the most vulnerable at the camp into shelter or housing.
One woman died last week at the campground, and on Sunday a man was arrested after a fight at the campground and after assaulting officers. Four bears were killed by state officials after raiding campsites for food and entering tents with campers inside. Initially, the city had not provided ways for campers to keep food safe from bears, but later provided bear-safe storage containers.
The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness and the Continuum of Care Advisory Council, which coordinate the city’s homeless response system, have called on the mayor’s office to implement major policy and operational changes at the campground, starting with federal HUD best practices. They’ve called for on-site homeless service provider managing operations, a 1:30 staff-to-client ratio, and to keep the camp’s population at no more than 150 people.
“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,” they said in a July 15 letter to the mayor.
The Salvation Army has been working with the city health department and parks department and observed that “it’s been a lot of individual agencies and grassroots groups that are trying to step in,” Pope said.
“And we just said, ‘Hey, we’re here,’ ” he said. “We have experience in managing disasters and emergencies and the feeding and coordination ... So, we’re willing to come in and see if we can, as a neutral party, work with everyone and see if we can get a better handle on what’s going on out there.”
The Salvation Army provided tents and some cots to people who the city moved to the campground from the Sullivan Arena shelter.
The executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, Meg Zaletel said the coalition was not involved in any decision or discussions about The Salvation Army managing efforts at Centennial and learned of it Tuesday from the mayor’s announcement. Zaletel is also a Midtown Assembly member, a separate role.
“I’m happy to see that there is a provider coming on site,” Zaletel said. “I don’t know if that provider will have site control, will be able to establish rules and enforce rules. I’m not exactly sure what they mean by case management and care coordination.”
The Salvation Army has called for a meeting Wednesday with multiple Anchorage homeless services providers, she said.
The Salvation Army, which is an international Christian religious and charitable organization, has operated some legal homeless camping sites in other Lower 48 cities. In Santa Cruz, California, the organization was selected by the city to run a 60-person sanctioned homeless camp. In Aurora, Colorado, The Salvation Army and city stood up a 32-person “safe camping site.”
In Anchorage, the Salvation Army operates an emergency shelter for families, the McKinnell House, and operates substance abuse treatment at its Clitheroe Center facilities, currently working to bring back online a 68-bed facility damaged in the 2018 earthquake.
On Monday, the coalition suspended coordinating street outreach efforts at Centennial over safety concerns. The organization will reassess safety at Centennial in the next 48 hours, Zaletel said.
Substance abuse and loud verbal and physical altercations are increasing, residents and volunteers report.
The coalition estimates that 350 or more people are living in Anchorage unsheltered, including at Centennial. Privately run shelters and transitional housing options in the city are largely full, with waitlists.
Days of rain have left those at Centennial coping with soggy living conditions, along with others living in unsanctioned camps scattered through the city’s green spaces. Some campers have flooded tents and soaked clothes and gear. Others, with better tents, tarps and gear, have stayed dry and warm.
“I still have really significant concerns about high-needs individuals that are unsheltered in our community,” Zaletel said. Some have recently been referred to the city’s new complex care facility at the former Sockeye Inn, she said. That’s helpful, but complex care is full or nearly full, she said.
With a 150-person East Anchorage shelter and navigation center unlikely to be finished until early winter, and without shelter space or more housing options, city officials, service providers and advocacy groups generally agree that the campground will remain the status quo for now.
Three Assembly members have proposed a funding package that would help bring online 120 units of permanent supportive housing and 60 rental units, and to secure permanently 130 units at the GuestHouse Inn already being used as transitional housing. If the package is approved, the new housing efforts will take time and likely months, at best available before winter.