Tim Olsen, Kyle Thornton and Chelsey Donn tried to warm up on Friday afternoon.
At the large homeless encampment next to Cuddy Park in Midtown Anchorage, they huddled close to a small fire burning in a ring inside a makeshift shelter.
A biting cold wind cut through large gaps. Tarps and plastic sheets fluttered close to the flames.
The three have never camped outside in Anchorage during the winter before.
They needed everything “from blankets to toilet paper to food to more logs that we can burn to stay warm — or anything,” Thornton said. “There’s no bad idea.”
“Better access to bathrooms,” Olsen added.
Across the encampment, a man emerged from a cluster of RVs and vans. Bundled up with a green sleeping bag draped around his shoulders, he walked north toward the Loussac Library.
During the day, people in the encampment go there to use the bathroom.
They also seek warmth, other restrooms and supplies at nearby businesses, like Lowe’s or Walmart.
Despite the city opening three emergency winter homeless shelters, several hundred people are living outdoors in Anchorage. Like Olsen, Thornton and Donn, many are camping, sleeping in tents or vehicles or in small shelters they’ve built. Others sleep on the streets and in doorways.
Over the last week, they’ve contended with brutal conditions and record snowfall that buried the city, clogging roadways, sidewalks and closing public transportation and schools.
At an encampment in Mountain View near Davis Park on Thursday, the weather had toppled trees into some tents and shelters. Heavy, wet snow collapsed others.
And conditions are about to get worse.
High temperatures barely creeping out of single digits, and subzero low temperatures, were forecast through the weekend. Meanwhile, city and private shelters are largely full.
The city’s shelters in two Anchorage hotels have been largely full since opening last month.
On Tuesday, the Anchorage Assembly voted to add another 50 beds to the city’s large group shelter, located in a former administrative building of Solid Waste Services on 56th Avenue. That brought the total number of city shelter beds to 574.
But as of Monday, the city’s registration list for an emergency winter shelter bed totaled 1,200 individuals — and around half of them can’t get a city bed unless officials open more shelter.
More than 100 people on that list indicated that they had some form of shelter, such as couch surfing or staying in a private shelter. However, most said they were living outside.
While officials in Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration have said they are working to open a warming area for 50 people in Fairview, it will likely take at least a week or longer, they said during a meeting Wednesday.
As of last week, a record 49 people have died unsheltered in Anchorage so far this year.
Olsen, Thornton and Donn heard about the city’s hotel shelters and weeks ago added their names to the city’s phone-in registration list for winter shelter. They were hoping to get hotel rooms.
But they said no one from the city or the service providers running Anchorage’s shelters has checked in with them. “Not one call, nothing,” said Thornton, who has a working phone.
“I know people don’t forget about us out here, but it’s almost like they do at the same time,” said Thornton. “There are people out here that are definitely still willing to work and try to make their lives better. Like in a heartbeat, you know. They just don’t ever get the chance.”
“We make an effort to do something positive, it just ends up kind of, we end up getting pushed two steps back. I know it sounds weird but, it just doesn’t — the stigma sticks,” Donn said.
They didn’t know the location of the shelter on 56th Avenue — about a 1 1/2-mile walk down Old Seward Highway from their camp — or that they could go there and get a bed.
There were about 40 beds available there on Friday afternoon, according to the nonprofit running the shelter, Henning Inc.
If Olsen, Thornton and Donn do leave the encampment to go to the shelter, they risk losing their belongings and makeshift shelter materials to theft.
But, Thornton said, “right now I don’t care about my stuff. I just wanna stay warm.”