On Tuesday, Anchorage municipal officials began the first clearing of a major homeless encampment in months. In and around Cuddy Park, they began to haul away trash and mounds of discarded material from dozens of homeless camps.
The process, formally known as abatement, has largely been halted around the municipality to comply with federal rules barring local governments from kicking unsheltered people off public property when there’s no indoor shelter for them to go to instead, as is now the case in Anchorage.
While the city says it’s on firm legal footing, a civil rights group is objecting and asking for a judge to weigh in.
As city workers began clearing the camp Tuesday, most people who had been staying there had already left.
Chris Moore pushed around a small shopping cart with mismatched bicycle wheels in the basket, lengths of tube trailing on the ground like tendrils. Moore said he stays at a spot elsewhere and never lived here, but visited regularly. He was scouring the remnants of encampments scattered around an overgrown lot by 40th and Denali streets, adjacent to Cuddy Park and the city’s main library.
“I’m trying to put my bike back together, so I came to get some bicycle parts,” Moore said. “There’s a surplus of bicycle parts.”
There were plenty of places to look: All around were piles of discarded garbage.
The area became a popular option for campers to set up once the municipality closed down the large homeless shelter inside Sullivan Arena, and the few hardened occupants who weathered the winter there were abruptly joined by dozens more people with no better options for places to go.
At the end of May, officials took the rare step of notifying campers they couldn’t stay in and around Cuddy. Signs went up in the area telling the people living in tents, under tarps and within an A-frame made from wood scraps that they need to go elsewhere, without saying where exactly that might be. The deadline was June 6.
By midday Tuesday, just a handful of tents were scattered in a wooded patch of land between a playground and the road. On the other side of Cuddy Park, in the lot that a decade ago stood a chance of housing a National Archives facility, the campers on hand piled possessions into shopping carts or hauled sleds to move elsewhere. Employees in neon vests from the city’s parks department tossed garbage bags into truck beds. Small front-loaders trundled around with their buckets crammed full of trash.
“I’m real busy,” said a fast-talking man named Aaron who declined to give his last name as he hurried to load up what possessions he could schlep away, with a few helpers assisting. “It was safe for a while, and now they gave us the ultimatum. I’m behind the eight ball.”
He’d camped in the spot for a year and accumulated a formidable volume of material. Aaron said he’d gone to the nearby Dairy Queen earlier in the day and bought nine cheeseburgers as a “peace offering” and now had a few helpers assisting, though he didn’t know where he would go.
Only around six people overwintered in the park, Aaron said, and other than police occasionally stopping to look for specific people, it was relatively untroubled.
But that changed after the Sullivan shelter started shutting down at the end of April.
“Then everybody else popped up, and all hell broke loose,” Aaron said. “It was kind of chaos.”
Without enough shelter to accommodate the hundreds of people now staying outdoors, the municipality has an extremely high legal bar to clear in order to force people to move off public property. The 2018 federal court ruling known as Martin v. Boise bars local governments from punishing homeless campers by fining or expelling them if there’s no feasible indoor alternative like a low-barrier shelter.
The city’s legal justification for clearing campers away from Cuddy Park is that it accepted money months ago to permit a three-day music festival on the grounds and is obligated to honor the arrangement. With the music festival set to happen later this month, municipal officials said, there’s a public safety risk to having thousands of concertgoers bumping up against dozens of homeless campers.
Under provisions of the city’s abatement protocols, there are exceptions to the normal parameters that members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration say justify kicking unsheltered people out and closing the park to camping.
“This area was posted for abatement because the parcels are being closed in anticipation of a large event that will restrict public access to the area,” Bronson spokesman Hans Rodvik said in an emailed statement. “When no shelter space exits, the Municipality abates in the following limited circumstances: when public lands are closed to the public; where exigent circumstances posing a serious risk to human life and safety exist; and where the municipality needs to ensure (Americans with Disabilities Act) access.”
The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union disagrees with that determination.
“Abating camps when people have nowhere else to go violates constitutional law, denies basic human dignity and comes dangerously close to criminalizing poverty,” said Mara Kimmel, who heads the ACLU of Alaska.
The organization has challenged the city in the past when it believed municipal officials were violating residents’ civil rights by clearing camps with inadequate notice or discarding their personal property. In 2016, when Kimmel was first lady of Anchorage, her husband Ethan Berkowitz’s administration received a stern letter from the ACLU of Alaska’s previous director saying that in light of the city’s limited shelter capacity, it should stop abating camps.
This time, the organization is litigating the issue. On Monday, the ACLU of Alaska filed paperwork to try to halt the abatements at Cuddy Park on behalf of 13 campers. The move is unlikely to affect people staying there in the short term, given that the city moved forward with sending employees to clear debris away and gave advance notice it intends to close the area to camping. But it begins a legal process that will bring the issue before a state Superior Court judge in the months ahead.
“It does set a dangerous precedent if they’re allowed, through their own actions, to set up a land-use conflict,” said ACLU of Alaska legal director Ruth Botstein. “If the city feels that they have a different view, we want the court to tell them no.”
At issue, according to Botstein, is whether the city’s legal rationale is valid: that a previously permitted event presents a safety risk that justifies abating the camp at a time when, under settled federal case law, the municipality cannot punish homeless people by kicking them off public property.
Members of the Bronson administration have said that’s sufficient cause, particularly given that the area was set to be closed to the general public during the three days of the music festival.
Botstein disagrees with that reasoning and said that if local officials are going to play “fast and loose with people’s constitutional rights,” it will be challenged in court.
“The city has really done a shockingly poor job of caring for its most vulnerable residents. They made a conscious choice to shutter the only low-barrier shelter that was available to our most vulnerable citizens,” she said.
Organizers of the planned Sundown Solstice Festival are not pleased with the outcome, either.
“We have been beyond frustrated with the lack of accountability and communication regarding this issue, and the blame being placed on a local business only trying to better the city,” said Hellen Fleming, one of the owners of Showdown Alaska, during Tuesday night’s Assembly meeting.
She said she’d started engaging with the city and Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness in April to work toward some kind of resolution for the situation around the park.
“We leaned on the city to make the right choice to protect both the unhoused and the patrons of the concert. For the sake of public safety. We were told that abatement was the right choice,” Fleming said. “My only question to the city now is ‘why?’ Why was the Sullivan closed with no plan? Why weren’t sanctioned camps created from the start? Why was there no communication to campers about this festival from the very start in the area? This could all have been avoided.”