A growing number of people are living in cars, RVs and other vehicles in Anchorage homeless camps, complicating city efforts to shut camps down before winter and highlighting a lesser-seen side of homelessness in the city.
As of last week, aerial images showed at least 100 vehicles parked at two major camps in the city: at Third Avenue and Ingra Street, near downtown, and at Cuddy Park, in Midtown.
The number of vehicles at Third and Ingra has “just exploded” over the past few weeks, said Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless coordinator. Over the weekend, the city posted flyers saying the lot was closed to vehicles starting Sunday, and that vehicles would be subject to “immediate impound.” As of Monday morning, no vehicles had been towed.
People living in vehicles say they are often someone’s last big asset, and offer security, privacy and protection from the weather — whether they run or not.
Mike Poirier, a mechanic from the Mat-Su who has been living on and off in a Ford Explorer at the camp near downtown, said the vehicles are likely to pop up somewhere else if they are made to leave the Third and Ingra encampment.
“These people don’t have nowhere to go, that’s why they’re living here,” h e said.
What researchers call “vehicle residency” has become a major issue in West Coast cities grappling with homelessness, including Seattle and Portland. Seattle has opened “RV safe lots” where people can legally park overnight, in exchange for engaging with social service providers. In Portland, large RV camps have drawn complaints from neighborhoods who say the vehicles pose environmental and safety risks.
Data on the exact number of vehicle residents citywide in Anchorage is scarce, but small clusters of vehicles have taken root in parking lots and elsewhere across the city in recent months.
Legally, a federal appeals court decision that says the city must first have alternative shelter available before removing a tent camp on public land addresses structures but is silent on people living in vehicles specifically, said Johnson, the city homeless coordinator.
So far, Anchorage has viewed people living in vehicles as legally the same as people living in tents under the Ninth Circuit decision, Johnson said. “We’ve given a certain leeway,” she said. That may change.
One man, 15 vehicles
Many of the vehicles at the Third and Ingra lot belong to one man: Apollo Naff.
Naff, 47, says he is housing dozens of people in a cluster of roughly 15 box trucks and city buses. It’s part of what Naff describes as an unconventional effort at providing shelter — offering people a place to sleep in one of his vehicles.
“Does the city have a better plan?” said Naff, the former owner of the Bubbly Mermaid oyster and champagne bar in downtown Anchorage, on a recent tour of the lot. His collection of vehicles includes junked city buses, delivery trucks and even some decrepit boats.
Some city leaders are skeptical of what Naff is doing, and say the growing fleet of vehicles is complicating city efforts to clear the area before winter.
“His maybe well-intentioned desire to help is not helping,” said Assembly Chair Chris Constant. “Dropping off junk vehicles … and saying ‘this is shelter’ is not the answer.”
Over the past month, more vehicles have arrived at the site, said Rob Cupples, who owns rental property across the street. The city doesn’t seem to know what to do, he said.
“He’s got boats, he’s got box trucks, two buses, a fire truck,” he said. “It just continues to grow.”
The city put up concrete barriers to block incoming traffic into the lot, Johnson said.
Naff says he became homeless himself after the Bubbly Mermaid failed during the pandemic. He says he received small-business loans and grant funding to buy box trucks and decided to park them at Third and Ingra after the Sullivan Arena closed in May, sending hundreds of people to camp in city parks and greenbelts. He says he felt he owed it to unhoused people.
“These are the people that helped me when I had to break into my own bar to get my champagne stock,” he said. “It was (unhoused people) that helped me.”
Over the summer, more vehicles arrived, and the Third and Ingra camp became a political flashpoint, with the mayor repeatedly vowing to clean it up or close it.
Naff says that about 25 people are now living in his vehicles. Some of them work for him as mechanics, he said.
Ultimately, he wants to send some who are addicted to a rehabilitation program in Baja, Mexico and offer them employment at an oyster and kelp farm he hopes to open in Southeast Alaska. It’s not clear how far off that goal is. Naff was attending an infrastructure development conference at the Captain Cook Hotel last week to pursue more grants.
Johnson, the city homeless coordinator, said she wasn’t necessarily against Naff’s efforts, but said they couldn’t happen on public property.
“I think if you have private land and he wanted to allow for people to come sleeping buses on his land, that would be something that he’s free to do, but unfortunately, it’s on municipal property,” she said.
Sierra Daunning is living in one of Naff’s box trucks — this one painted, by a previous owner, with pictures of frolicking children. It’s better than a tent, said Daunning, showing a heavy chain she uses to lock herself in at night.
“I feel safer,” she said.
‘It seems like an impossibly difficult problem’
Cupples, who owns vacation rentals across the street from the Third and Ingra lot, thinks the city needs to have clearer laws around towing parked vehicles. The vehicles are just one part of the camp, he said, but what to do with them seems especially vexing to the city.
“This seems like an impossibly difficult problem for the municipality to wrap their heads around,” he said. “Somehow they are completely powerless.”
The city says they want the vehicles gone, at least from Third and Ingra. The municipality plans to post a notice of abatement in mid-October, around when it plans to open an emergency cold weather shelter at the former Solid Waste Services headquarters, Johnson said. Under the Martin v. Boise federal court decision, the city can’t clear camps until it has adequate alternative shelter space to offer. The camp will be removed starting Oct. 26, wrote city spokeswoman Veronica Hoxie in an email.
The previous soft enforcement over clearing vehicles that people are living in might be over, said Johnson.
“I think now the biggest thing is that we recognize that this law is being used for one owner to have multiple vehicles,” she said.
The city also plans to clear a small camp that has developed at Chanshtnu Park in Muldoon, according to Hoxie.
“Cuddy Park has yet to be assessed due to limited sheltering space and large volume of campers on that footprint,” Hoxie said.
Campers such as Poirier, the mechanic, say that having vehicles impounded and put in tow lots means unhoused people have to come up with hundreds of dollars to get it out. Most can’t do that, he said.
If the lot is cleared, he said, “we’ll just have to start over somewhere else, bring all this chaos … again.”