The Municipality of Anchorage is moving to clear dozens of homeless campers out of a Midtown park ahead of a three-day music festival set to take place there in June. It’s the first such large-scale abatement of encampments in months, as the city has grappled with emergency shelters at capacity and the closure of its low-barrier walk-in facility inside Sullivan Arena.
Signs affixed to trees and tents around the park on Wednesday read: “This zoned area is closing to camping. Personal property in or around the posted zone at the end of 10 days shall be removed and disposed of.”
The large cluster of camps at Cuddy Family Midtown Park is just one of several that have sprung up in different parts of town in the last several weeks as the mass shelter inside Sullivan Arena winds down. It is the only such encampment to receive an abatement notice, according to the city.
“This is a public safety issue,” said Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless coordinator. “We’re gonna have a public safety issue if we have thousands of concertgoers. And so we’re closing the entire zone.”
Several people staying in the area said that was an inadequate justification for pushing them out with no guidance or assistance on where to go next.
The area set to be off-limits to campers extends from the Loussac Library to Cuddy Park and the former site of the proposed National Archives building at 40th Avenue and Denali Street, which is where some of the most extensive encampments are rooted. The far western edge of the property toward A Street and a U.S. Postal Service building is speckled with about two dozen small tents scattered among stands of trees.
Campers have until June 6 to leave the area.
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The city has a specific set of policies about providing people with notice and accounting for their possessions before they are kicked off public lands, a process known as abatement. But Anchorage has inconsistently abated camps for almost a year after shuttering Sullivan Arena in the summer of 2022 before it was reopened for winter, a factor that has contributed to widespread and entrenched encampments appearing across much of Anchorage’s greenbelts, parks and abandoned lots.
Part of the reason for that is legal: Under a federal appeals court ruling, municipalities cannot penalize camping on public lands if there’s not alternative indoor shelter space for people to go to instead. With Sullivan Arena closing down to the homeless and other shelters at or above capacity around town, the city is limited in how aggressively it can enforce rules that bar camping on public land.
But local governments do have latitude in how they apply abatement rules and negotiate the narrow ruling in the case known as Martin v. Boise.
“Martin v. Boise is complicated and it’s been misunderstood. It’s not a flat prohibition on the municipality’s ability to abate when there is no shelter space, but it’s also unclear what some of the nuances are there. Hence the confusion,” municipal attorney Anne Helzer said at a meeting of the Anchorage Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness last week.
Helzer and other attorneys with the city explained that in certain instances, the municipality is allowed to abate encampments even if there’s not an alternative shelter space, such as if a camp poses an extreme public safety concern, constitutes a major environmental risk, or hinders access for others, like if a tent is set up in the middle of a sidewalk. Lawyers for the city are trying to thread a needle between keeping the people safe, ensuring access to public resources like park space, and anticipating constitutional challenges if an organization or individual believes the city is infringing on civil rights.
“The concert event does a play a role in (the abatement) because they are permitted and we have to honor that,” Johnson said.
The city is trying to honor contracts with the company organizing the Sundown Solstice Festival, which paid the municipality $25,000 to rent the park, according to Hellen Fleming, one of the co-owners of Showdown Alaska. Since preparations for the concert began a year ago, Fleming said, her company has paid an additional $250,000 to local businesses getting ahold of fencing, tents, food vendors, sound equipment, security and more, to be able to bring a packed roster of musicians to Anchorage to perform, including headlining national acts like Rae Sremmurd, Chromeo, Big Boi and dozens more.
“When doing any large event in a city that (struggles) with homelessness, you must protect both the patrons and the unhoused. We were told we are liable for anything that happens in the park,” Fleming wrote in a statement posted online. “We knew thousands of people were coming to the park. We weighed the circumstances and did not want any unhoused residents to be bothered, or put any of their belongings in risk. We also wanted to protect our patrons.”
Fleming said the company consulted with city planners and homelessness policy experts in trying to figure out a course of action.
For those currently camped in the area, the concert justification from the city adds insult to injury.
“They’re having a concert right there … It makes you feel like a lower-class citizen, like you don’t really matter,” said Jessica Bell.
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She recently came to Anchorage from Wrangell to attend a course in HVAC repair, and arrived at the encampment near the old Archives site just a few nights ago after her housing arrangement with friends fell apart.
“It’s very frustrating,” Bell said of the abatement notices telling people to move along. “We just got here, we don’t have anywhere else right now, so I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do.”
Others feel mistreated by the city as it shuffles them to different areas without offering adequate solutions or alternatives.
“They just keep moving us and then we end up putting up a camp somewhere else … instead of giving us an area and giving us some rules to follow,” said Annie Heinrich, who has lived on the Anchorage streets since November.
She’s been staying in the Midtown park for a couple weeks and was not yet sure Thursday where she’d move on to, but she said campers who don’t leave risk getting their tents taken or cut up. She said she wishes city policymakers had more sympathy for people’s circumstances in encampments like this one.
“Everybody’s one paycheck away from being homeless,” Heinrich said. “I used to make $50 an hour, now look at me.”
Nearby, Dezerae Parazoo thinks she and her husband might need to move to an outdoor spot nearby, but she hopes a longer-term solution is on the horizon for them.
“Hopefully something comes through on some housing,” she said.
Parazoo said she fell into homelessness last winter shortly after being diagnosed with stage 3 cervical cancer. It’s been difficult to manage medical treatment on top of the scramble by so many people in Anchorage right now to secure limited spots in shelters or housing units.
“Everything is so backed up that it’s just gonna take time, is what I’ve been told,” Parazoo said.
[In April, a record 8 people believed to be homeless died outside in Anchorage]
Though she still has three radiation appointments left, Parazoo is now done with chemotherapy and free of tumors.
“So that’s one good thing that went right for me,” she said.