Across the street from the 4th Avenue Market Place early Tuesday morning, a woman sat on the sidewalk, her back against a building. A large blanket lay in a heap on the ground next to her. A slight stir of movement revealed the shape of another person huddled beneath.
Mac Lyons, coordinated entry director with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, knelt and handed the woman a Ziploc “goodie bag” from inside a large blue duffel: two pairs of knit gloves, a hat, hand warmers and snacks.
He asked her the series of survey questions, some federally required, like whether she’s been a victim of domestic violence. Other questions were from the coalition, inquiring about factors that contributed to her homelessness.
Each year, agencies in communities across the country conduct a federally required point-in-time count: an unduplicated count of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in late January. In Anchorage, the count is organized and conducted by the coalition.
In addition to Lyons, who carried the duffel slung over a shoulder, the group doing the downtown count included Meg Zaletel, the coalition’s executive director and the Anchorage Assembly’s vice chair, along with Anchorage Downtown Partnership executive director Radhika Krishna and ADP safety team lead Ray Gilkey.
On G Street, another person slept under a pile of blankets in an alcove of the doorway to a restaurant and wine bar.
People often use cardboard to help shield them from snow and ice on the pavement, Gilkey said.
Another woman rested in an alcove of a graffiti-laden building. She peeked out from underneath a brown tarp and offered a “good morning” when Lyons and Zaletel approached.
“It’s super cold out. Don’t be afraid to go to the warming areas,” Lyons told her after finishing the survey questions.
Another three people living unsheltered were warming up inside the entry vestibule to City Hall, along with several others staying at a nearby city shelter. Zaletel tugged a pair of gloves over one man’s bare hands and told him where he could find the city’s emergency warming areas.
The team also encountered several people who’d spent the bitterly cold night awake, walking the streets to try to keep warm.
Staying up walking can also be safer — “especially if you’re a woman,” Zaletel said.
By 9 a.m., Zaletel and Lyons had surveyed more than a dozen people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in the immediate downtown area.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that all communities receiving a type of federal grant for homeless assistance take part in the annual count. It includes a yearly tally of everyone who stayed in a shelter or transitional housing overnight.
The coalition, with small teams of volunteering service providers, also try to locate and survey anyone living unsheltered — those staying in places not meant for human habitation.
In Anchorage, the count has particular challenges. It’s the farthest-north urban homeless response system required to do the midwinter count, and the survey must encompass a geographic area the size of Rhode Island, Zaletel said.
HUD uses the point-in-time count data to help determine how much federal funding for homelessness communities receive. The federal agency on Monday announced that Anchorage’s homeless response system will receive $4.39 million.
But the data in the point-in-time count often falls short: Anchorage opens hundreds of emergency shelter beds in the winter that don’t exist year-round, and it’s impossible to capture a totally accurate picture of homelessness in midwinter, when many people are hunkered down trying to stay warm and difficult to find.
Heavy snowfall Sunday buried the city in another 17 inches of snow, worsening conditions for those living outside. It also complicated the count efforts, making it logistically difficult to park and spot trails and camps under the layer of fresh snow, Lyons said.
“For a trained eye that knows what a camp looks like, when it’s covered in snow it makes it just that much more difficult and they start to blend in,” Lyons said.
Surveys of known Anchorage encampments were planned for later on Tuesday, including near Cuddy Park in Midtown and Davis Park in Mountain View, along with smaller camps. Teams in Eagle River, Chugiak and Girdwood were also out, Lyons said.
The city’s emergency winter homeless shelters have remained near or at capacity for weeks. Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson on Friday declared a public health and safety emergency due to the forecast of double-digit subzero temperatures and the number of people living unsheltered. The Assembly later approved extending the emergency measure, which opened three warming facilities until at least Feb. 9. (Zaletel recuses herself from votes related to homelessness that pertain to the coalition.)
But with many sidewalks buried in deep snow, those facilities are difficult to reach for some. Others weren’t yet aware of the new warming areas.
The coalition estimates more than 200 people are living in vehicles, camping in the city’s parks and green spaces, and sleeping on city streets or elsewhere.