Twenty-four people believed to be homeless have died outdoors in Anchorage so far this year, according to Anchorage Police Department data.
The deceased were found all over: In city parks. Tucked behind office buildings. In an encampment alongside one of the busiest roads in Alaska. The youngest was 30. The oldest was 74. A mother of seven. A former chef.
The Daily News has used incident reports obtained from Anchorage police to track deaths of people found outdoors with no fixed address as the time of their death. No other group has been tracking outdoor deaths in Anchorage with data available to the public, though some other cities do.
The data falls short of capturing every death of a person experiencing homelessness, including those who die in hospitals, homicides or elsewhere. And police have, in the past, stopped short of calling every person on the list “homeless” because being housed or homeless can be a quickly changing state.
Still, such deaths serve as an important measure of the city’s efforts, experts say: The most basic goal of sheltering unhoused people is to ensure that they don’t die on the streets.
“Anytime someone dies, it points to a failure somewhere in the system,” said Rob Marx, director of supportive housing for RurAL CAP.
This year, city leaders say they believe overdoses — specifically on powerful, cheap and deadly fentanyl — might be driving the increase. Unhoused people have also endured a year of shelter instability, with the city’s main low-barrier shelter at the Sullivan Arena closing at the end of June, only to reopen three months later.
One of those who died was Desiree Heglin, found dead in a tent at a park fronting Arctic Boulevard on a rainy mid-summer afternoon. She was 31 years old.
Heglin was from Kodiak, the granddaughter of a revered Alutiiq leader and culture bearer. Her family wants her to be remembered as a loving and generous person, her younger sister Samantha-Lynn Heglin said.
She battled addiction but “fought really hard,” her sister said. “She had three kids and she wanted nothing more than to be an amazing mother.”
One day in July, her sister got a call from an Alaska State Trooper.
“We are calling to notify next-of-kin that Desiree Heglin has been found deceased,” the trooper said.
“I remember it, word-for-word,” her sister Samantha-Lynn Heglin said. “It replays in my head every day.”
[More coverage of Anchorage homelessness]
With three weeks left in the calendar year, 2022′s death toll to date is the highest in the past six years, as far back as the data analyzed by the Daily News goes. Last year, 16 people died. The year before, 17.
What’s driving outdoor deaths
The Bronson administration points to substance use as a driver of the increase in deaths.
“Any death is one death too many,” city spokesman Corey Allen Young said in an emailed statement. “And while unsheltered homelessness is one of the contributing factors to some outdoor deaths, we have an underlying epidemic which is untreated substance misuse problems and a huge fentanyl surge in the city.”
To respond, the municipality is starting an opioid task force, supporting the APD’s decision to have its officers carry Narcan kits, Young said. Young called the actions “steps in the right direction to prevent future overdoses” that have “the potential to decrease the number of outdoor deaths affecting our houseless neighbors.”
Anchorage homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson said she also believes that an increase in outdoor deaths is likely driven by overdoses, though she hasn’t seen data to back it up. She’s anecdotally hearing about overdoses on the street, she said, underscoring a need to get as many people as possible into some kind of housing. Some of the deaths, she said, have happened “because there hasn’t been an opportunity for intervention.”
The deaths “shine a light on what’s needed,” she said.
An analysis of the first 21 deaths by the Alaska Medical Examiner’s Office found that of those who died, just one person died directly from cold weather exposure. (The other three deaths hadn’t occurred or been reported yet.) The majority of those deaths, according to the office, were related to “the effects of drugs and alcohol.”
Alaska Medical Examiner Dr. Gary Zientek said he couldn’t describe the causes of the deaths in more specific terms without potentially threatening the privacy of individual deceased people. Individual death records are generally not considered public records in Alaska. But it’s clear to him that fentanyl is showing up far more frequently than it used to in the autopsies his office completes. Many overdose deaths involve a mix of substances, including fentanyl, meth and heroin, he said.
“The last two years — I mean it’s gone crazy,” he said.
The most recent Alaska Department of Health preliminary data available tracks overdose deaths statewide from January-June 2022. During that time period, 118 people died of drug overdoses. Sixty-seven of those involved fentanyl.
The record number of outdoor deaths unfolded during a year full of upheaval and instability for Anchorage’s unhoused population.
When the year began, the main low-barrier homeless shelter was in the Sullivan Arena. Some nights more than 500 people sought shelter there. But on the last day of June, the city shut down the mass shelter, saying pandemic-related funding was running out and the arena was never meant to permanently house the homeless. Lacking another indoor shelter, people were directed to camp at Centennial Park in Muldoon. At a neighborhood meeting in July, advocates called the campground’s conditions “dangerous” and “deplorable.”
Hours later, police were called to the campground for a report of an unconscious woman. A bystander her tried to revive her with Narcan. The 54-year-old woman, Susan Morgan, was the 11th person to die an outdoor death of the year.
Three months of record-breaking rain later, at the end of September, the city again turned to the Sullivan Arena as the main emergency shelter. During the months when no indoor shelter existed, seven people died outside, including at least one woman who died inside Centennial Park. As of Thursday, all 200 beds at the Sullivan Arena mass shelter were full, according to city homelessness data.
This week, the Bronson administration asked the Anchorage Assembly to increase the capacity of the Sullivan Arena shelter to 360 people.
Josef Rutz is an outreach worker who visits encampments around the city. He said he usually hears about deaths secondhand, encountering people who are grieving losses of friends, partners and family on the street.
News of the number of deaths “honestly, doesn’t surprise me,” he said. It’s been an especially chaotic and trying year to be homeless in Anchorage, and a lot of people are “just feeling burned,” he said. Outreach has been harder, and some of the people he encounters are more suspicious of offers of help and seem more entrenched in their arrangements on the street.
“I’m seeing camps where I’ve never seen camps before, in much more public open areas, camps on sidewalks in different areas of town,” he said. “I think it’s because there’s just not adequate housing and shelter room.”
Deaths seem to come seasonally, he said: While many deaths this year happened in warmer months — 13 from May to the end of September — fall and winter is when life on the street gets much harder in the cold.
Johnson, the homeless coordinator, thinks getting people from camps into shelter where Narcan and other people are close at hand to intervene if an overdose happens.
“When people are unsheltered and they’re outdoors, and that sort of oversight isn’t happening,” she said.
She feels some reason for optimism: Johnson said that this fall, there’s far more people doing the kind of person-to-person outreach that Josef Rutz and others do in encampments, with the goal of getting every unsheltered person a place to stay.
“There’s been this coming together, where we saw that the turmoil wasn’t working,” she said. “I feel now that there’s this big community push from all providers, the municipality, the public of ‘how do we solve this community wide problem that shouldn’t be political?’”
But the mayor and the Anchorage Assembly are still at odds over some aspects of the city’s winter homelessness response.
Recently, the Bronson administration asked the Assembly to increase the capacity of the Sullivan Arena shelter from 200 to 360, saying the shelter is overflowing with clients nightly. But the Assembly said capacity issues hadn’t been raised before, and declined to put the issue up for an emergency vote.
‘Nobody wants to be homeless’
Samantha-Lynn Heglin, whose sister Desiree died in Anchorage in July, is thinking about root causes of homelessness. as she grieves. She also lost her grandmother within days of her sister’s death.
Her grandmother Margaret Agnguarta Roberts was a leader in the Alutiiq community who worked for “cultural preservation, wellness and tribal sovereignty,” as her obituary put it, leading the Sun’aq Tribe to federal recognition and starting a cultural dance group, among other service.
Heglin says she’s inspired by her grandmother to work toward getting better services for mental illness and addiction treatment built on Kodiak. She wants to see treatment for mental illness and addiction — issues she sees as the core of the problems that compound when people don’t have a stable place to live — available closer than a plane ride away.
“Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I want to be a drug addict. I want to ruin my life,’” she said. “I’m telling you: Nobody wants to be homeless.”