Uncertainty looms for people living at large Midtown homeless camp as clearing begins

Front-end loaders began clearing portions of the homeless camp around Anchorage’s Cuddy Park on Tuesday. It may take up to three weeks to clean the camp, an official said.

People living in one of Anchorage’s largest homeless camps watched Tuesday as front-end loaders began to scoop up piles of clothing, broken pallets and trash from the edge of the park — the city’s first step in removing the encampment.

For many people, the clearing of the camp near Cuddy Family Midtown Park leaves them without a place to go.

Authorities cannot legally force homeless people from staying on public property when there isn’t enough shelter available to house them, but Anchorage city officials on Tuesday cited public health and safety concerns as legal justification.

“There’s a lot of public health issues that we’re seeing,” said Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless coordinator. “There’s a lot of trash, debris, we have some chemical spills — it’s pretty unsanitary over there. And the camp has gotten too big. It’s pretty problematic.”

A camp at Cuddy Park was similarly cleared in May last year as officials cited public safety concerns ahead of a three-day music festival planned at the park that June.

This year’s abatement comes as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs whether to overturn the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision halting cities from enforcing laws against homeless people camping in public spaces.

It also comes as city officials push for the area to be redeveloped. The Anchorage Assembly last week approved rezoning the lot where many people had camped in hopes of selling the land to be developed into multifamily housing.

Signs posted on trees around the edges of the camp warned abatement would begin Tuesday. City officials gave campers 20 days of notice instead of the required 10 days because of lingering snow and mud this season, Johnson said.


It will likely take two to three weeks to clean up the area, said Parks and Recreation Director Mike Braniff. Crews started Tuesday by clearing an area where no one was actively living. They want to work with campers and give them time to gather their belongings and leave rather than just tossing everything, he said.

Some people will likely continue to sleep at the camp in the coming days until they figure out where to go next, Braniff said. He estimated 115 to 125 people were living at the camp.

Outreach workers, health department employees and city officials walked through the sprawling camp Tuesday afternoon. Mayor Dave Bronson and Assembly member Zac Johnson were also present.

Alexis Johnson talked with campers about opportunities to stay at shelters. She said there were 11 spots open at the shelter at the former Solid Waste Services building early Tuesday afternoon and five beds had been filled at other shelter locations.

“The biggest issue that we’re hearing is that people don’t want to go into shelter,” she said.

Kyla Freidenbloom said she has lived outside for about five years. She planned to head to the shelter Tuesday night, she said. She doesn’t know where she’d go otherwise and she’s tired of moving from camp to camp.

Freidenbloom said she was feeling a mix of emotions as she sifted through her belongings — many splayed out across the dirt to dry after being soaked by snow. She said she’s hopeful but hesitant.

“I don’t have anything better, and that’s how I gotta look at it,” she said. “Because if I had something better, I’d already be there.”

Tents, vehicles and makeshift shelters assembled from sticks and tarps dotted the property. Shopping carts and totes were piled with blankets and personal belongings as people tried to decide what they would be able to take with them and what they would leave behind to be thrown out.

Angelica Herdeman had already packed up her tent Tuesday morning in anticipation of the clearing. She’d wrapped everything she could fit into a heavy brown tarp and strapped it to the top of her black sedan. Next to the car was a pile of her belongings — stuffed animals and a chest from Herdeman’s childhood, car tires and “pretty much everything that’s not to sleep in or wear is getting tossed out.”

Herdeman, who said she moved into the encampment roughly four months earlier when she lost housing, is angry about the abatement and said she doesn’t know where she’ll go next.

“We’ll park where we can before they boot us out again,” she said. “I’m just tired — the only reason we came here is because cops kept kicking us out of everywhere. We weren’t making a mess, we were literally just sleeping in the car, so it’s like, what are you supposed to do?”


In the parking lot on the outskirts of the camp, Michelle Goss and Bradley Heffinger’s green sedan was situated over several parking spaces. They stopped there in January for a night but the car wouldn’t turn on in the morning, Heffinger said. They’ve tried to get it running again with no luck.

Goss and Heffinger set up a makeshift shelter next to the car and have been living there since with their 9-year-old son and two cats. Goss said she was hoping to purchase a new vehicle Wednesday, but was worried Tuesday morning about the possibility of their car being towed before she can get the SUV.

Even if they get the SUV, it’s not clear what they’ll do next. Goss said she wants to take a few days to decompress with her family after the stress of tearing down their shelter and helping others at the camp.

The couple said they were worried about where other people living in the camp will go. They said they’ve administered Narcan, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, to numerous people while living there. Heffinger said he worries that once people leave the large camp, no one will be around to help them if they overdose wherever they set up their next shelter.

“That’s a terrible fear, that so many people I’ll never see again,” Heffinger said.

As the couple continued clearing their space Tuesday afternoon, Heffinger walked over to a mattress several spots away from theirs in the parking lot. He gently reached for the shoulder of a man lying underneath a blanket to check if he was OK, saying, “Are you alive?”

After the man responded, Heffinger headed back toward his space to continue clearing the area.

Tess Williams

Tess Williams is a reporter focusing on breaking news and public safety. Before joining the ADN in 2019, she was a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. Contact her at twilliams@adn.com.