Anchorage

Police shooting rattles community at Anchorage’s campground for homeless residents

Centennial Park Campground, homeless, shooting aftermath

Erikka Williamson froze for a moment when she first heard the gunshots.

Williamson and her 8-year-old daughter were crossing Centennial Park Campground, where roughly 200 houseless people are living in East Anchorage, when shots pierced through the evening din.

“Then once I heard it, back to back to back, I knew what it was. And I’m like, ‘OK. We gotta go,’ ” she said.

She grabbed her daughter and ran.

The pair had been passing through an area of the campground just north of where two police officers and a man exchanged multiple rounds of gunfire on Wednesday night.

The eruption of violence left one officer and the suspect, Iese Gali Jr., with serious injuries. Police say both are expected to recover, and, according to department policy, will not release the name of the officer involved in the shooting until three days after the incident. Gali now faces attempted murder and other charges.

The shooting has shaken some homeless campers, like Williamson, in the community of homeless individuals that has formed in the campground over the last four weeks.

[Man accused of shooting officer at Centennial Campground is charged with attempted murder]

Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration repurposed the park at the end of June as a sanctioned camping site for the unsheltered. The city directed and bused people there from illegal camps and from the mass shelter in Sullivan Arena as the administration closed the city’s pandemic emergency shelter.

“I was terrified. Petrified,” Williamson’s 8-year-old said after the shooting, sitting on a small stool beneath a canopy tent on a quiet, rainy Thursday.

For many others at the Centennial encampment, life continued on as usual Thursday. Many didn’t yet know the details of the Wednesday night incident. Some rumors circulated. A few campers witnessed the entire gunfire exchange.

Israel Chipps, who moved to the campground when the city closed Sullivan Arena, was draining pockets of rainwater from his tarps when the shooting began at the site next to his.

“I know when I heard guns and heard bullets start flying ... I better slowly but surely get the heck out of the firing range,” he said.

Chipps said he didn’t sleep well. He was questioned by police downtown and didn’t return until after 1 a.m., he said. Even then, he couldn’t immediately return to his campsite until the investigation concluded.

Centennial Park Campground, homeless, shooting aftermath

Leon Tholson tended to his fire Thursday morning, just a few sites down from where the shooting took place.

Tholson, who has bounced in and out of homelessness, said he loves the campground and stays there every summer if he can. He heard the gunshots while lying down in his tent. Tholson said he doesn’t feel any less safe at Centennial than he does elsewhere.

“I’m not going nowhere, you know?” he said. “That can happen anywhere. It does happen anywhere.”

Further down the bend of the camp loop, Vanessa Bainter sawed on a large piece of wood with a small serrated blade inside of her tent. She is building a coat rack so she and her 20-year-old daughter, Sapphire Tyone, can dry their clothes, she said.

“It’s been rattling because, hey, Sapphire is my daughter. And I worry about that. I would hate for her to get crossfire or something like that,” Bainter said.

She’d been pretty content at Centennial prior to Wednesday’s shooting, she said.

“And now, I almost want to just pack up and go somewhere else, even if I get kicked out by the police,” she said.

But Bainter, who has been camping in Anchorage for four years, including through winters, said she will stay to keep an eye on her daughter.

Centennial Park Campground, homeless, shooting aftermath

[‘Nothing but rain’: Homeless residents try to cope with a soggy mess at Centennial Park Campground]

Nowhere else to go

With the Sullivan mass shelter shuttered, there is almost no available shelter in the city. Shelters and housing programs are largely full, with waitlists. There are more than 350 people living unsheltered in the city, including those at Centennial, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates.

Bronson officials have said they expect to keep Centennial sanctioned for use by people experiencing homelessness through September or early October.

City officials have said 58 people at Centennial came from Sullivan Arena, including 41 who the city transported there.

The administration has continued to deny that the campground is a part of the city’s homeless response, and the city has provided few supplies and no food or homeless services to the unsheltered people it directed and moved to the park.

Local service organizations, community groups and volunteers have scrambled to pull together a patchwork effort to meet the campers’ most pressing needs, providing food, camping gear, clothing and outreach to connect campers to homeless services.

Elected officials, homeless advocates, service providers and community groups have all raised serious concerns over conditions at the camp and safety of the unsheltered campers, volunteers and staff. Some, including Assembly members and homeless advocates, have called it a humanitarian crisis.

A woman at the campground died of an overdose last week. A fight on Sunday night resulted in multiple assaults on police officers. Bears frequent the encampment and have torn into tents with campers inside. Five have so far been killed by authorities.

Centennial Park Campground, homeless, shooting aftermath

Campers and volunteers, including one volunteer who has been camping on site, have reported increasing and problematic drug and alcohol use among a few groups of campers along with frequent instances of domestic violence, and said that some vulnerable campers have been robbed while using the trails leading in and out of the park.

But some campers, who have seen and endured violence while homeless, say Centennial Campground is not new.

The gunfire roused Joseph Link from his tent a few spots away. “I heard shots. Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow. Like, whoa, that was pretty close,” he recalled.

Life has been difficult in his three or four years living on the streets, Link said.

“I’ve been through a lot living under Christmas trees without shelter,” he said.

For the moment, he said he’s grateful to have a small green tent, which he keeps under a brown tarp. On his hip, he carries bear spray. He plans to stay at Centennial, he said.

“It’s scary, but I got friends around,” he said.

Centennial Park Campground, homeless, shooting aftermath

On Thursday afternoon, the Salvation Army was at the campground, beginning a triage and census of the campers and their needs. The mayor’s office announced this week that the religious Christian and charitable organization would be providing “on-site management of client care.”

Volunteers and some campers say they are cautiously hopeful that the Salvation Army will be able to help coordinate services, donation and case management and help get people into housing. Some are skeptical.

Organizations that provide outreach services and case management have been leery of working at the campground due to safety concerns, though some outreach workers have periodically visited and volunteered.

For unsheltered people, street outreach is the first line into homeless services.

The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness and the Continuum of Care Advisory Board, which oversee the city’s network of homelessness response services, pulled Centennial from the official outreach schedule earlier this week over safety issues.

The Salvation Army’s Lt. Col. Doug Tollerud heads the Alaska division and was on site Thursday afternoon. The goal is to get everyone out and into other shelter or housing by the end of August -- the latest, end of September, he said.

The organization had started moving a few families with children out of the campground on Thursday.

“They’re going to be our priority,” Tollerud said. “We have some we are moving. But we have to find a place.”

Centennial Park Campground, homeless, shooting aftermath

On Thursday afternoon, a Salvation Army worker told the news to Williamson, who has three children -- the 8-year-old girl, an 11-year-old boy, and a baby of 3 months.

“I just heard we’re about to be leaving here. I was so excited, I want to cry,” Williamson said. “They said after yesterday that they’re planning on getting us out of here. We don’t know exactly where we’re going. But they said we might go back to the McKinnell House, but I’m not sure.”

An ‘untenable’ situation

Though Wednesday’s shooting was the most high-profile and serious instance of violence inside the Centennial encampment, public officials and service providers say it has little impact on the situation with homelessness in the city.

“I don’t think it really changes anything at all,” said Rob Marx, who is in charge of supportive housing for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program. “It just demonstrates there’s a high amount of need to provide assistance to folks and just trying to make sure that basic needs are met.”

A group of nonprofits and service providers convened under a pavilion near the campground Thursday to dispense supplies and creature comforts: ponchos, hats, cookies, dry underwear and hot coffee.

“Recent incidents have been hard on the people staying in the camp, as well as impacting the service provider community and neighborhood,” said Owen Hutchinson with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, one of the groups handing out supplies.

Bronson and a trio of conservative Assembly members issued separate statements Thursday addressing the incident that emphasized their support for law enforcement.

“This was an officer-initiated contact because of criminal activity that happened elsewhere. It’s unfortunate that APD found him at Centennial but I thank God that the officer who was shot is expected to make a full recovery and the suspect was apprehended,” Bronson said.

“We need to unify and help where we can by being vigilant stewards of our neighborhoods, reporting crimes, and volunteering for local community patrols, neighborhood watches, and other civic groups where we are able,” said a statement from Assembly members Jamie Allard, Kevin Cross and Randy Sulte, which encouraged interested residents to join the police force.

Centennial Park Campground, homeless, shooting aftermath

Neither statement mentions homelessness or why Gali opted to drive into the campground after he allegedly eluded police officers. In response to questions about the incident, a spokesman for the administration said they do not know whether or not Gali was staying at the encampment.

“The incident had nothing to do with Centennial. Security personnel are on site 24/7 and will continue to (be) so,” wrote Corey Allen Young. “Safety and protection for everyone who lives in Anchorage is a priority no matter where they are at, which includes safe sheltering for those who choose to camp outside.”

Other Assembly members are frustrated with how the administration is handling Centennial and what they say is a lack of coordination or communication. But they have little to no ability to impact operations at the campground.

“This situation is untenable and something must be done to provide safe, permanent and sustainable housing for the most vulnerable in our community,” said Assembly member Chris Constant.

Several members are pushing a five-part funding package to secure around 300 housing units by this winter. Even if all of those plans come to fruition, it does nothing to change public safety issues inside Centennial during the weeks and months ahead.

“This unmitigated humanitarian crisis is ongoing and the mayor needs to step up and find shelter for these people,” Constant said. “A camp is no shelter for a room. Camp Bronson has got to go.”

Among service providers, the shooting incident has strengthened the resolve to push for more housing options.

“We’ve had that urgency for years,” said Marx with RurAL CAP. “This doesn’t change, it just throws a spotlight on it.”

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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.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers the military, dog mushing, politics, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. Prior to joining the ADN he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.

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