Anchorage residents, social services and community groups have sprung into action in an attempt to fill the gaps in services at Centennial Park Campground, which were left after Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration shut down the Sullivan Arena mass shelter in June and directed homeless residents to the park.
But because the Bronson administration is not treating the East Anchorage campsite as an official homelessness response, there hasn’t been much coordination or a clear path for ad hoc groups trying to help the estimated 200 unsheltered residents at the campground.
Some say they have been stymied, and in some cases frustrated when they didn’t see donations immediately going to campers, or when turned away from serving hot food to campers.
And for many organizations providing services and outreach to unsheltered Anchorage residents, the lack of a coordinated, official homelessness response at Centennial has deterred them from sending staff to the campground over safety and liability concerns.
“It’s just like a tinderbox,” said Anchorage social worker Julia Terry. Terry voluntarily gathered and distributed to Centennial residents about 100 kits containing Narcan, a lifesaving opioid overdose reversal drug, and trained about 50 campers on its use. But Terry said they would not direct staff or co-workers to do outreach at Centennial.
“It’s about safety of employees and the ability to be able to respond appropriately,” Terry said. “If we had a system of supporting people in place, if folks were being able to engage with outreach teams the way that they might in other parts of our homeless response system, then I think that would be a different matter.”
There are a couple hundred people there from all walks of life concentrated in one area with few resources. Some have histories of violence and others have been victims. Many campers have substance abuse disorders or untreated mental health issues, or both. With little to no oversight from trained social services staff, it’s a dangerous situation, Terry said.
Bronson officials have said the campground will likely remain a sanctioned camping area through September. In mid-July, the Salvation Army stepped in to help, of its own accord and without a city contract to run the campground. Two Salvation Army social services staff are now on site Monday through Friday. They say they are doing their best to coordinate services, including food and donations. They are also working to find more permanent shelter or housing placements for the people there.
“We are there helping clients, we’re trying to coordinate efforts, but we are in no way, shape or form the controlling body of this campground,” said Natalie Clendenin, spokeswoman for the Salvation Army’s Alaska Division.
Kendra Arciniega, a local filmmaker, has been organizing efforts to make and deliver sandwiches, snacks and supplies to Centennial campers. She’s angered by the Bronson administration’s denial that Centennial is part of its homelessness response and by the conditions she’s witnessed at the campground, she said.
“If this is not an official municipal response, then why are you policing mutual aid efforts by the community? Big question mark for me,” Arciniega said.
Trying to help
Duke Russell, an Anchorage artist, had been serving home-cooked, hot meals to campers regularly until Monday, when city and Salvation Army staff said he could no longer bring food there, he said.
“When I first started, there was no one around. There was absolutely no one around. No one cared. I was in 15 times before they stopped me,” Russell said.
He would make the food fresh in the morning, and cart it to the campground on the scooter. He served it hot at a campsite that has been acting as a resource center and safe zone for campers, run by volunteer Roger Branson, chair of the Houseless Resources Advocacy Council.
Bean’s Cafe, a local soup kitchen, has been on site serving the bulk of food, bringing three meals a day, and is coordinating food efforts with the Salvation Army.
Russell said he was there to offer a supplemental, healthy and often vegetable-based option to campers. He said it was a way to show unconditional support to people who are suffering, to serve food with love, compassion and dignity.
But once during the previous week, and again on Monday, a Salvation Army staffer and a city Parks and Recreation worker told Russell and Branson to stop serving food. They had concerns about food safety, liability and concern for his own safety in the camp, Russell said.
In an email, the mayor’s office said there is no city rule against sharing food amongst campers at Centennial, and that there are no requirements for community volunteer efforts, but that it is asking that individuals and groups coordinate with The Salvation Army.
Clendenin said the concern is that, without coordination or oversight, Russell’s effort could potentially pose food safety issues for campers, such as serving contaminated foods or inadvertently spreading illness. The Salvation Army is asking people to be respectful and responsible, but not enforcing, she said.
“We are not an enforcing agency, so if he chooses to cook, and for a large volume, at the campground, it is his responsibility to ensure safety if he chooses not to coordinate with the Salvation Army or Bean’s,” Clendenin said. “We, ourselves, have to follow the health department’s food safety laws. It is an open campsite and if people want to eat what he’s making, they can.”
Another issue is that sometimes donations, while well-intended, have been less than useful, both Branson and Salvation Army staff have said.
They’ve received electronics, half-used toiletries and questionable food. That’s why the organization is asking that community members coordinate donations and other efforts with the Salvation Army, Clendenin said.
“What’s a homeless person going to do with a head of iceberg lettuce?” Branson said. “No way to wash it, prepare it into a salad, and none of the stuff to go with it.”
Russell returned on Thursday morning to Centennial with an easel, canvas and paintbrushes. Rather than bringing food, he spent his time making paintings depicting the campground.
Volunteers administering Narcan
The Salvation Army currently needs volunteers who have a background in health care or social services, but is considering taking volunteers over age 18 to help with its efforts at Centennial, Clendenin said.
Capt. Denise Delgado, the Salvation Army’s social services director in Anchorage, is at Centennial on weekdays, collecting information from campers and entering it into Alaska’s Homeless Management Information System. The system is a key step for visibility and connection to service agencies, and eventually — hopefully — finding a placement in shelter or housing.
The process is slow-going, Delgado said. There is currently no low-barrier shelter space available in Anchorage, the rental market is sparse and expensive, and privately run shelters are largely full, with waitlists.
While the Salvation Army is providing important services as it is able, other informal volunteers have also found themselves in the position of providing urgently needed help — including lifesaving emergency care.
One evening late last month, Arciniega said she and a group of volunteers walked campsite to campsite, dropping off supplies and checking in on people.
They administered Narcan twice on that trip, she said — once to a person they found passed out in a shower, who was then revived, and again to a person they found unconscious in a tent. That person was later taken by ambulance for emergency medical care, she said.
Volunteers have found people sleeping inside dirty bathrooms to get out of the rain, she said. They’ve found broken and overflowing toilets with no toilet paper, she said.
Asked why it is not considering the campground a homeless response, the mayor’s office said in a statement: “The Municipality of Anchorage is actively working with community partners to place people in shelter, services, treatment, and permanent housing on a daily basis. These efforts which include standing up the Navigation Center later this year and providing other sheltering/housing options will continue as long as there is a need in our community.”
Assembly member Felix Rivera, chair of the Committee on Housing and Homelessness, said the situation at Centennial will not improve until the administration calls it a homelessness response and “aligns the municipality’s efforts with reality.”
That would allow the Salvation Army or the Coalition to End Homelessness to coordinate on-site services, control the perimeter, entrance and exit, and implement structure, staffing and rules that are usually seen in low-barrier shelters or successful sanctioned campgrounds that have existed in other states, he said.
“Right now they’re treating it like a public campground and ignoring all of the things that are that are happening there, ignoring all of the needs that exist there that don’t exist in a normal public camp,” Rivera said. “Because the normal public campground isn’t a homelessness response that was created by the government — and that’s exactly what happened here.”
Correction: A previous version of this article used incorrect pronouns for Julia Terry.