On Wednesday afternoon, Michelle Samaniego and John Biesemeier trudged through the large homeless encampment next to Cuddy Park in Midtown Anchorage. They were heading out to search neighborhood dumpsters for insulation materials like pink polystyrene panels or carpeting. A major snowstorm was about to arrive.
The two were hoping to build out a shelter area next to a friend’s RV parked on the east side of the camp.
Under the hush of falling snow, the camp was mostly still. People hunkered inside vehicles, trying to keep warm.
The hardest part of living in the encampment right now: “It’s just too cold, and the lack of resources,” Samaniego said.
It’s nearly impossible to keep cellphones charged. There’s little access to showers or bathrooms. Transportation is limited — city buses cost money. Gear, like tents and warm clothing, is scarce. Phones and gear are frequently stolen or destroyed.
By Thursday morning, significant snowfall had buried the Anchorage Bowl — making each of those day-to-day needs even harder to come by.
And at least several hundred homeless residents are living unsheltered on city streets and in encampments like the one near Cuddy Park.
City officials opened 524 beds in three emergency winter shelters last month, located in the Aviator and Alex Hotels and at a shelter inside an administrative building at Solid Waste Services’ former transfer station.
The city’s call-in waitlist for referral to a shelter had topped 1,100 names last week. On Wednesday, both hotel shelters were full and about 115 people were staying in the congregate shelter. That left about 35 city shelter beds available.
The system has been fraught with confusion for many homeless residents. Many lack reliable phones, and haven’t been sure where to go for shelter or resources.
In the past week, at least three people believed to be homeless have died outdoors, including two in wheelchairs, according to data from the Anchorage Police Department.
On Thursday morning, a person died in a fire at a homeless encampment in the Campbell Park neighborhood.
The people who are least likely to have navigated the city’s referral system, phone waitlist and the shuttles to shelter are often the ones who need it most, said David Rittenberg, director of adult homeless services with Catholic Social Services and a longtime shelter manager.
People in the throes of severe mental illness or substance misuse disorders, or people with physical disabilities, who have little ability to care for themselves in dangerous wet, snowy weather, are especially at risk of slipping through the shelter system.
“The people that are left behind are the most vulnerable,” Rittenberg said.
‘Trying to get some help’
At Catholic Social Services’ 3rd Avenue Resource and Navigation Center on Wednesday, people shook snow off their boots as they came inside to charge cellphones, take showers and see social service workers.
Friends Mike Pritchett and Kose Tuu had been camping in a tent in the woods near Mountain View for five months. It had been unsafe, said Tuu. Stealing was rampant.
“It’s a whole different city back there,” he said.
But it was OK, he said, until winter began in earnest. This week, when it snowed, the roof of the large shelter they’d been living in started to collapse, Tuu said. Efforts to keep the tent warm started a fire. It was time to go indoors. Pritchett and Tuu had trekked to the navigation center to see about getting a place to sleep for the night indoors.
“We’ve been coming around here trying to get some help,” Tuu said.
They sat on a couch and waited for word that they could get a shuttle ride to the shelter. They knew only that it was in the Old Seward Highway area.
Tuu said he hoped to get a job as soon as he was living at an indoor shelter.
“I have a family,” he said. “I have seven kids.”
Rittenberg said the navigation center traffic has ebbed since the city last month demolished a large camp just up the street at Third Avenue and Ingra. In bad weather, “people just hunker down in their tents,” he said. The focus is on the basics: staying warm and dry.
The winter shelter plan is complex, Rittenberg said, between the by-referral hotel rooms and the new location for the city’s emergency congregate shelter.
The Brother Francis Shelter is operating as a low-barrier, walk-in option, but in practice it’s full, with a waitlist daily.
It was no surprise many people seeking a place to get out of the cold for the night didn’t know the nuances, Rittenberg said.
“There hasn’t been a consistent, coordinated communication plan about how people need to access the shelter,” he said
The encampment at Cuddy Park is a mishmash of tents, tarps, dozens of vehicles — including trucks, vans, small buses and RVs — and several cabin-like shelters constructed out of pallets, boards and other materials.
The city-owned lot is surrounded by chain-link fencing. The Midtown Lowe’s and Home Depot buildings sprawl along its peripherals, visible through lines of bare trees.
Samaniego on Wednesday didn’t have gloves, her ruddy hands swollen from the cold. Biesemeier passed her a hand-warmer packet.
Both spent last winter mostly living outside. Samaniego sometimes stayed in a friend’s hotel room. She doesn’t have that option so far this year.
“I usually grabbed a box and tea lights and just put the tea lights around inside and the tarp over it, or the emergency blankets,” Samaniego said. But the emergency blankets often cost too much. “$5 is expensive living out here. I don’t have that. I barely make 50 cents,” she said.
Biesemeier said he put his name on the city’s list for shelter, hoping to get a hotel room, but he never heard back.
Despite the cold, Samaniego and Biesemeier would rather stay outside than go to the shelter at the former Solid Waste Services building, they said, recalling bad experiences and chaos in the city’s former mass shelter in Sullivan Arena.
The city provided port-a-potties at the encampment over the summer, but has since removed them due to freezing conditions.
Right now, Samaniego goes to Walmart to use a restroom and “to kill time and to be warm” she said.
“And then they look at us like, ‘What’s she doing in here for so long and not buying anything? Let’s look in her bag.’ It’s like, ‘Oh my God, leave me alone,’” she said.
She would go to the 3rd Avenue Resource and Navigation Center for hot showers, but it’s a long, cold walk.
“It’s so far away. It’s cold,” Samaniego said. “If there were like, little rest areas where I could go and stand and warm up, that’d be fine. But there isn’t.”
She can charge a phone at the Loussac Library nearby, but she doesn’t like to stay long — it’s full of families and kids, and “people feel uncomfortable with us around,” she said.
Her phone is now long gone anyways, stolen along with the rest of her gear. “I just went to the bathroom and there went all my stuff,” she said.
Somebody burned her tent down where she had been camped at another location, and it’s hard now to get another one. She sleeps “wherever,” she said.
They sometimes hang out in their friend’s RV to get out of the weather. But it’s not really warm — the RV doesn’t run without a jump, Biesemeier said.
Many vehicles at the encampment are broken down. A few have generators. Many use propane heaters and makeshift wood stoves for warmth.
Their friend emerged from the RV with a sudden clatter of its door.
“I’m off to work,” he said, and walked off, heading north to his job at a business on Fireweed Lane.
‘A freaking struggle’
Elsewhere in the encampment on Wednesday, Janell Moody met up with her husband. On foot, Moody was on her way to get a medical test she needed in order to continue daily methadone treatment.
She’d been staying at the Aviator Hotel downtown but was recently kicked out, she said.
“I honestly got kicked out of the hotel because I brought somebody in from the cold. They didn’t belong there. So they can take a nap and take a shower,” Moody said. The person had paid her $30 for it, she said.
“It burned me. It burned me bad. And now we’re separated, and I haven’t seen him in days,” she said of her husband. “So I’m out here walking all the time, from downtown to here,” she said.
Moody is now staying at the city’s mass shelter, a 1.5-mile walk south from the encampment.
For her, transportation is the biggest issue right now. She needs to make it to a methadone clinic across town each morning.
“It’s been a freaking struggle,” she said. She missed several days and became sick.
“I felt helpless. Like, how am I going to do this every single day and be able to be warm at night, and not have to … So I’m like, chasing a dragon still, but not drug form. Like, trying to seriously keep my head above water,” Moody said.
Hopefully, with the help of social services, in about 10 days she’ll get approved for vouchers for cab rides, she said.
At the encampment near Cuddy Park, a few people worked around the edges of their camps to clear snow from tents as the storm tapered off on Thursday afternoon. All around were shopping carts, bike frames, and vehicles buried under new snowfall.
Several tents had collapsed under the weight of the fresh snow, marked by a pole or piece of a rainfly poking out. Other improvised camps looked at risk of failing. A cabin built out of deconstructed wooden pallets and scavenged plywood appeared flexed at a cockeyed angle, under several inches of new snow piled on the roof.
Karl Thiele, 50, was slowly wiping snow off the tent at his campsite.
Thiele, who grew up between Anchorage, Bristol Bay and the Kenai Peninsula, was taking steps to weatherize his shelter.
The night before, he’d shaken snow off the tree branches before they could bend too low. And he was preparing to add some insulation to his tent. He sipped from a two-gallon plastic jug as he worked, drinking water he either melts from snow at a fire or retrieves from the library.
“I’ve stayed outdoors, but I haven’t lived outdoors like this,” he said.