Every morning lately, between 7 and 8 a.m., Rob Cupples walks the wide-open lot across the street from his Anchorage business and counts the homeless camps.
On Tuesday there were more than 40, including a few tents that weren’t there the day before.
“Every day that goes by, it gets just a little bit more chaotic,” said Cupples, walking between scattered trash and scrubby alders. “It’s sort of incremental, very small increments. But I can feel it. I can feel every day the chaos slowly starting to build.”
Cupples owns rental properties on a block of East Third Avenue just east of downtown, across the street from where the old Alaska Native Medical Center used to be. Now owned by the Municipality of Anchorage, it’s a big, flat, undeveloped lot. And since the demobilization of the shelter inside Sullivan Arena on May 1, it has become one of the de facto landing pads for people with nowhere else to go.
This section of downtown, close to social services such as Bean’s Cafe and the Brother Francis Shelter, has long drawn homeless campers. For decades, residents and community groups pleaded with the city to enact policies that would prevent crime, chaos and misery from growing unchecked in the neighborhood. And for most of the last three years, there was a reprieve: After the city opened the mass care shelter inside the Sullivan as a pandemic emergency measure, this stretch of Third Avenue grew calmer and quieter.
But in the days since the arena was closed to all but the 90 most severely disabled clients, things have returned to the way they were. And Cupples says he simply has to come to terms with the fact that homeless campers will be living there until city officials enact real solutions.
“My reality is that they’re here, and if the city isn’t going to come and maintain order, then I have to do everything that I can do to maintain as much order as possible for the sake of my business,” he said.
‘You don’t win with confrontation’
Though Cupples doesn’t live in the neighborhood anymore, he has deep roots there. In 1951, when his grandparents built a house there, the area was rural enough that his grandmother used to chase dairy cows out of her garden with a broom. Now it’s one of the houses he uses for short-term rentals.
His three units on Third Avenue are booked through the summer, and already he’s fielding client concerns about the encampments across the street. Public customer reviews online, which new clients use when they book their stays in Anchorage, are beginning to note the camps, which Cupples thinks will affect future reservations.
After purchasing building materials, he decided to pause renovations planned for one of the dilapidated huts that he purchased on the block during the pandemic. The circumstances aren’t currently conducive for that kind of business expansion, he said.
Plenty of the other houses lining Third Avenue are home to long-term occupants, which makes it different from some of the other commercial and recreational areas where encampments have sprung up since Sullivan shut down.
“This is one of the last surviving little pockets of single-family residential (houses),” Cupples said. “This location is where people sleep at night.”
On his daily walk through the site, he does a sweep of his rental cottages to spot problems: broken windows, people sleeping in alcoves, trespassing.
“I experienced a break-in within 72 hours of the closure of Sullivan Arena,” Cupples said, pointing to a board nailed over a basement window that had been kicked in. “I hadn’t experienced something like that in about three years. And it happened within three days.”
After the sweep, he walks the sprawling, wide-open lot introducing himself to anyone he can manage to chat up, handing out black trash bags and nitrile gloves, asking campers to help keep the area tidy.
“You don’t win with confrontation,” Cupples explained of his approach.
Most people, he said, were willing enough to pitch in, but there are limits to how much voluntary goodwill can accomplish in the absence of basic public services. There are no bathrooms at the old hospital property, nor is there running water. There is no one in charge of public safety, or electricity to keep phones charged enough for emergency calls.
Due to federal court decisions, the city can’t tell campers to move off public land if there’s no alternate indoor shelter space for them to go. Right now in Anchorage, that space doesn’t exist. So the dozens of campers are in a legal limbo: Their encampments aren’t technically allowed to remain, but they can’t be told to leave.
“For the time being, this (property) is high and dry and flat. And quite frankly, with no plan and no abatement, no one has to hide,” Cupples said.
At a time of year when much of the city’s greenbelt is soggy with snowmelt, the lot is dry. Many tents sit atop wooden pallets, hauled in from elsewhere. Even in midmorning, the area was exceptionally loud: Semi trucks rumbled down Third Avenue, small planes whined out of nearby Merrill Field airport, and military aircraft from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson roared overhead. A few people shouted back and forth. Nesting gulls ceaselessly squawked and cackled.
“The birds, they live here. We’re just visiting,” said Allen LaVont Jefferson, who on Tuesday morning was gathering garbage off the ground of his own accord. He’d set up his tent the day prior. Before that, he said, he’d been staying at the Sullivan.
As Jefferson paused, Cupples introduced himself.
“I’m trying to come over here and show you guys some respect. And I’m just asking you guys to show my neighborhood respect in exchange. So I appreciate you doing what you’re doing,” Cupples said.
“We’re here due to some circumstances that happened in our lives. We are not here to run down your property value,” Jefferson replied. “I’m going by and telling everybody, ‘Hey, just pick up around your area, 20 feet around your area, and I’ll do the rest.’ ”
Jefferson looked down at a gully strewn with trash left at an abandoned campsite hugging a fence at the back of the lot.
“I’m gonna get a rake and get all this cleaned up. To me, because I’m an Alaskan, this breaks my heart,” he said, gesturing at the heaps of wet debris.
‘Makes life coarser overall’
City workers in orange vests were on hand gathering all manner of refuse and tossing it into the bed of a roving truck. Crews come to this lot twice a week to do pickups. A muni employee wielding a trash picker plied a garbage pile next to a shiny red fat-tire bike beside a sprawling tarp dome as someone inside played a remix of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on a phone speaker.
Cupples and others in the area have complained to officials of more theft since the uptick in campers. All around the lot were items of questionable provenance: Portable generators and large propane tanks powering tents. Mounds of bikes, some stripped down to component parts, others freshly spray-painted. Newly printed waterproof banner signs strung up like tarps.
“It’s sad when the city allows a situation like that to hurt business, hurt the economy, downgrade the neighborhood. It just makes life coarser overall,” said John Tatham, whose business, PIP Printing, has been in the area through other swells in homelessness.
He said many of worst impacts have returned in force to the neighborhood, like trespassing, vandalism, public defecation, low-level theft and drug dealing.
“Nothing is managed, nothing is policed, and it’s just kinda the Wild West, and that’s when bad things happen,” said Tatham.
Over the years, he has spent tens of thousands of dollars on safety measures like cameras, security and fencing. The pandemic had been a reprieve.
“COVID forced something to happen. So in that sense we benefited, because it straightened out the neighborhood, it returned to normal for 2 1/2 years,” he said.
Now, he said, “we’re right back to where we were.”
‘The Great Collective Failure’
Last week, as his daily camp count grand total was ballooning, Cupples wrote an email to a few city and state officials expressing his disappointment at the lack of political leadership on the homelessness situation in Anchorage. The subject line was “The Great Collective Failure.”
It generated some response.
“I think it represents lack of progress for the entire municipality,” said Anchorage Assembly member Daniel Volland, who represents the North Anchorage district.
Volland, who was elected in 2022, noted that work on homelessness done under earlier mayoral administrations has been “scrapped or stalled.” Since taking office in 2021, Mayor Dave Bronson has had an acrimonious relationship with the Assembly on shelter projects, though Volland noted there has recently been progress on finding solutions, including a resolution passed Tuesday night, co-sponsored by Bronson, requesting more assistance from government partners dealing with the problem.
Several new initiatives, such as task forces on behavioral health needs and the potential for sanctioned campsites, as well as shelter beds inside the former Golden Lion hotel now coming online, are getting off the ground, he added.
“A stark reality is that Anchorage cannot continue to fund all of this response and housing by ourselves. We need greater involvement and investment from our state and federal governments. We are treading water and need help,” Volland said. “So east downtown and Fairview, and our unhoused neighbors, continue to bear an unfair burden.”
Even still, Volland stands by his vote in April to wind down the shelter inside the Sullivan, which passed the Assembly unanimously.
“It’s almost as if many folks who live in other parts of Anchorage have just accepted it as the de facto mass shelter in our community. But we know a mass care model, attempting to serve hundreds of clients at once, doesn’t truly serve clients or neighborhoods well,” he said. “Demobilization of the Sullivan as emergency winter shelter is one of the toughest choices my colleagues and I have had to make, but I believe it is the right choice.”
That is, by and large, a position Bronson shares.
“The Sullivan does need to get back to its intended use,” Bronson said in an interview. “That community, Fairview, has paid the price on this homeless issue.”
The mayor called Cupples after receiving a message from him about the deteriorating situation on Third Avenue, and earlier this week went out to see the camps for himself. He said he sympathizes with residents’ frustrations at camps popping up near homes, along recreational trails, in parks, on public easements and at intersections, but said there are legal limits on what can be done with abatement suspended.
“I know it’s terrible, I know Cuddy Park is terrible,” Bronson said. “We’ve got the Department of Law, we’ve got APD working on what we can do to get it out of the public eye.”
The mayor said he believes the best thing to do is stand up more shelter, ideally the large-scale tent structure he proposed for a site at Tudor and Elmore roads. But he is clear-eyed that ultimately, that plan needs support from the Assembly, where enthusiasm has declined over both the proposal and the bungled process by which the administration pursued it by skirting public procurement procedures.
“At the end of the day, I am kinda out of options. They’re going to have to give me options, because they control the money,” Bronson said.
Cupples avoids assigning blame to any one public official or entity for the proliferation of camps, attributing it instead to the parties’ inability to work together on proposals that might help.
“(Bronson’s) got a plan, he has an idea of how he thinks we should move forward. It doesn’t necessarily align with the Assembly’s vision or plan,” Cupples said. “Each of them is traveling on their own path, but their paths don’t ever connect.”