Anchorage officials on Monday said the city has suspended indefinitely the planned clearing of a large homeless encampment in a Mountain View park, which it had scheduled for Wednesday. The city’s decision comes a few days after the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the municipality over its plans.
“The Municipality felt it within the best interest of all parties to suspend the abatement indefinitely until all stakeholders can come to the table and find the best path forward,” Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless coordinator, said in a statement.
The ACLU said that the clearing of homeless camps, which the city calls abatement, amounts to cruel and unusual treatment of homeless campers who have nowhere to go — all shelters in Anchorage are full. A 2018 federal court ruling prohibits the city from tearing down homeless camps on public lands and forcing people to leave when no feasible indoor shelter is available. The decision to call off the clearing of Davis Park camps shows the city’s limited recourse while there is no other place for people to go.
Several hundred people are living unsheltered in Anchorage, and the city has largely halted camp clearing this summer. Hundreds are camping in a downtown lot, and the city said it would begin to provide basic services there.
Roughly 150 people have been living in Davis Park and a wooded area surrounding a nearby city snow dump. The land is federal, owned by Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, and leased to the city. The terms of that lease ban camping on the property, and JBER officials pushed for the city to enforce the lease terms, saying people staying in Davis had trespassed onto the base.
“Because the DOD requested the initial abatement due to security risks on the base, we made decisions to honor the terms of our land lease with them. However, we believe it is in the best interest of both the municipal workforce and the unsheltered individuals living there to refrain from pursuing such action entirely while the pending ACLU action is underway,” Johnson said.
“With such a large camp, and a large inventory of personal belongings, the lift for (Parks and Recreation) will be a heavy one, the effects on the individuals will be traumatizing, and the negative impacts on the highly politicized camp at 3rd/Ingra will be detrimental,” Johnson said, referring to a plot of municipally-owned land on the northeast edge of downtown, where about 200 people are living unsheltered, near the intersections of Third Avenue and Ingra Street.
The ACLU of Alaska applauded the city’s decision.
“The constitution is clear. The Municipality cannot force individuals to leave public spaces when there is no place for them to go,” said ACLU legal director Ruth Botstein. “The rights of people in Davis Park are protected for now, and we will continue to make sure that our government does not infringe on individual protections afforded to all by the U.S. Constitution.”
It’s not clear when or if the camp clearing at Davis will occur at all, leaving campers in limbo.
The ACLU of Alaska had filed an appeal Wednesday to the state’s Superior Court on behalf of 13 people camping at Davis Park, calling on the court to block abatement.
Municipal Attorney Anne Helzer, in a response filed in court on Monday, said while the city has agreed to hold off abatement for now, the Department of Defense also has civil and criminal jurisdiction in the municipality and “may have the authority to abate this property on their own.” The city hasn’t yet been able to determine the Department of Defense’s position on the issue, though it has attempted, she said in the filing.
There was an air of relief about the camp on Monday, as the word got around that abatement wouldn’t happen — at least for now.
Gregory Allen Stevens unloaded a couple of large, used smokers from a friend’s vehicle, setting them outside his makeshift shelter in the encampment across the street from Davis Park at the snow dump.
“I’m Dena’ina. This is Dena’ina land. And they want to kick us off our land,” Stevens said.
At the snow dump site, a camper had covered its paths with gravel left from the snowmelt. The paths wind through the trees, around small mounds of trash and debris, and numerous clusters of tents and shelters made from a mishmash of materials: tarps, plastic, carpets, pieces of lumber, large branches and fallen trees — whatever works. Empty bottles of alcohol and signs of drug use were visible. A few large pits in the ground were filled with debris.
Tracy Lynn Thompson, an appellant in the ACLU case, said she’d cleaned one of the pits mostly out. They’re trying to keep it clean, but it’s difficult with bears and other wildlife and few trash receptacles, she said. Thompson said she’s tired of moving and starting over, losing most of her belongings with each dismantling.
One of the other homeless campers represented by the ACLU, Brian Vaughan, stood beneath the canopy of trees, smoking a cigarette outside his large shelter.
A few weeks ago, Vaughan upgraded from an eight-person tent to his new home, fashioned out of a driveway canopy frame and fabric, enclosed with two layers of plastic tarps. Inside — a large mattress bed and comforter, drawers, shelves and the twinkling LED lights of a tabletop tree lamp atop, an analog clock hung above.
“It’s not a tent. We’re not camping. This is put together with love of the heart. It’s a home,” he said.
For years, Vaughan has camped in the Davis Park area. He’s watched as the city dismantled camps numerous times. Each time, he packs up and moves to another spot in or around Davis Park.
Since then, camps again proliferated in the woods running north along the park, growing in numbers further since the city closed its shelter at Sullivan Arena this spring.
The executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, Mara Kimmel, said the city’s decision to halt the abatement of Davis Park “is a step towards respecting people’s rights.”