Anchorage outdoor deaths surge to a record since closure of Sullivan Arena shelter

Twenty-nine people believed to be homeless have died outside in Anchorage so far in 2023, far surpassing last year’s grim record — with five months left to go in the year.

More than half died in the months since the city closed the Sullivan Arena mass shelter to most residents on May 1, according to incident data from the Anchorage Police Department. Six people died in just a four-day period in July.

“That’s very unfortunate,” said Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless coordinator, learning of the deaths for the first time Thursday. “Takes your breath away a little bit. It’s unacceptable.”

The Daily News uses incident reports from the Anchorage Police Department to track deaths of people found outdoors with no fixed address at the time of their death. The data doesn’t capture all deaths among people experiencing homelessness, such as homicides, car accidents or people who die in hospitals. But leaders say the number of people who die homeless on the streets is an important indicator of how the city is doing in caring for its unhoused people, and city leaders have said it is a priority to prevent such deaths.

Last year, when Anchorage recorded 24 deaths, the highest number since the Daily News began tracking in 2017, homeless service providers said the deaths pointed to a “failure somewhere in the system.”

Six of the recent deaths happened in just a four-day period, from July 18 to 21, according to the police department’s data. Most of those who died were young.

One was a 65-year-old man found dead near military land in Mountain View. A person who overdosed at a camp near Spenard Road but couldn’t be revived with Narcan. A 38-year-old found dead in a tent in Midtown. A 31-year-old woman discovered dead outside a Seward Highway business. A man found deceased in an encampment off Northwood Drive. A 30-year-old woman found dead in a portable toilet downtown.


[Previously: A death on Fireweed Lane]

For the first time, incident reports supplied to the Daily News by Anchorage police now mentioned when drug paraphernalia or empty alcohol bottles were found at the scene of a death.

The incident reports do not include cause of death, which is determined by the medical examiner and is considered private information. The correlation between drug paraphernalia or alcohol bottles found at the scene and the cause of the person’s death is not known.

Four of the six deaths that happened between July 18 and 21 mentioned drug paraphernalia found at the scene. One mentioned alcohol bottles.

“People living in low-barrier shelters at least can be supervised,” said Johnson. “And there is an intervention point you just don’t get out at places like Third and Ingra or Davis (Park),” referring to two places where large unsanctioned camps have grown in the absence of available shelter.

The Anchorage Fire Department’s assistant chief Alex Boyd said he wasn’t aware of a “bad batch” of drugs causing an unusual number of fatal overdoses circulating, but said data on call numbers wouldn’t be available for a few weeks.

“My assumption is this is often occurring in isolated places,” Boyd said. “People are trying to find concealed places.”

The high number of deaths comes at a time of instability and upheaval for unsheltered people in Anchorage.

[Mayor Bronson proposes giving plane tickets to Anchorage’s homeless this winter to prevent deaths from exposure]

In April, the city set another record: eight outdoor deaths in a month. The city closed the Sullivan Arena mass shelter at the beginning of May without an alternative shelter with sufficient beds or a sanctioned camp.

People have scattered to greenbelts, parks and empty lots. Private shelter space has been largely full, though new supportive housing apartments and a navigation center have opened.

Fifteen of the 29 outdoor deaths have occurred since May 1.

Daily News reporter Tess Williams contributed to this story.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.