What the Supreme Court’s ruling on homeless camps could mean for Anchorage

A long-awaited Supreme Court ruling on Friday that now allows cities to enforce camping bans could have significant implications for how Anchorage city officials handle homeless encampments — and for the city’s homeless residents living without shelter.

The high court’s ruling overturned a previous decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in the Grants Pass v. Johnson case, which held that homeless people could camp outside on city properties when there’s no alternative indoor shelter available.

That ruling, and a similar 9th Circuit decision in the case Martin v. Boise, has shaped homeless camping policy in Alaska and eight other Western states, until now.

Officials say Anchorage likely now has more latitude to clear any encampments that it deems problematic and unsafe, even without shelter beds to offer homeless campers.

Mayor-elect Suzanne LaFrance, who takes office Monday, said that the Supreme Court’s Grants Pass decision “gives more flexibility to local governments.”

“It’s a tool related to where people can sleep, but it’s not a solution to the fact that so many people are sleeping outside,” LaFrance said in a statement Friday.

“We know there is criminal activity that occurs around large encampments — we cannot tolerate that. Criminal activity warrants a police response,” LaFrance said. “But we cannot and will not get distracted from focusing on solutions to unsheltered homelessness: housing, year-round shelter, and access to treatment.”


A spokesman for LaFrance said no one in the incoming administration was available for an interview on the ruling Friday.

The high court’s decision comes as Anchorage is grappling with serious public health and safety issues related to homelessness: largely full homeless shelters, hundreds of unsheltered homeless residents with nowhere to go, and encampments scattered across the city’s public parks, streets and green spaces.

In one homeless camp along Fairbanks Street in Midtown, a shooting last week killed one man and wounded another.

Last fall, Anchorage and more than a dozen other cities signed on to an amicus brief to the Supreme Court arguing that the 9th Circuit’s Grants Pass decision “paralyzed local communities’ ability” to address the homelessness crisis in places where it’s most severe. In opposition to that argument, many homeless advocates say punishing people who need a place to sleep, especially when no shelter is available, amounts to criminalizing homelessness.

Anchorage’s outgoing mayor, Dave Bronson, celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling, saying in a Friday statement that it “provides cities like Anchorage with more tools to address homelessness effectively” and restores the municipality’s ability to enforce its laws.

ACLU calls decision ‘bleak and cruel’

Ruth Botstein, legal director for the ACLU of Alaska, in a statement called the ruling a “bleak and cruel decision that will allow cities to punish people who are just trying to survive while living unhoused.”

According to city code, a person could be fined $75 for camping on municipal land where camping isn’t permitted. Camping on private property, like a residential or commercial lot, or refusing to leave public land when asked by a person with authority, could result in a criminal trespass charge.

But the city generally doesn’t ticket or criminally charge people for sleeping outside.

“It has never been the practice or policy of the Municipality to actively prosecute people experiencing homelessness for the simple act of camping in public,” Assembly Housing and Homelessness Committee Chair Felix Rivera said in a statement on the ruling.

In April, the Assembly rejected a proposal from Bronson that would have added to city code a criminal misdemeanor charge for camping on municipal land and prohibited it altogether in numerous locations.

However, the city in a few cases has razed encampments, even while shelter beds were scarce.

Last summer, the ACLU of Alaska took legal action against the municipality on behalf of homeless residents when the city forced them to leave an empty lot near Cuddy Park in Midtown. In another appeal against the city, the ACLU stopped a scheduled clearing of an encampment near Davis Park in Mountain View.

Those cases were stayed until the Grants Pass ruling was issued, and are now resuming, said Eric Glatt, a local attorney who volunteers with the ACLU on the cases.

Over the last several years, homeless camps have proliferated in public spaces, particularly during the summer months, after the city’s emergency winter shelters closed. City officials struggled to address significant public health and safety issues for vulnerable homeless residents, neighbors and businesses.

“In Anchorage, one of the biggest challenges we face is the fact that for hundreds of people, sometimes over 1,000, it is impossible to be here and be alive and not violate the prohibition against criminal trespass and public nuisance camping,” Glatt said.

The situation creates uncertainty for everyone — people living in encampments, those who live, work and own businesses near encampments, and for the city agencies responsible for enforcement, Glatt said.

“There’s nowhere that people are allowed in the eyes of the law to be. And today’s ruling does nothing to relieve the municipality of resolving that question,” he said.


New Anchorage ‘tools’ for encampments

The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness called the Supreme Court’s decision “disappointing.”

If a person is subject to a criminal sanction for sleeping outside, that makes it more difficult for the person to get into housing, especially in a competitive housing market, said the coalition’s executive director, Meg Zaletel, who is also the Anchorage Assembly’s vice chair.

“Now you have another barrier. You have a criminal record, or you’ve gone to jail and we lose track of them,” she said. “... It does nothing to help people move towards the solution, which is housing.”

But that doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t take some enforcement actions, such as clearing encampments that are unsafe and connecting the homeless campers with resources, she said.

And Friday’s ruling doesn’t mean the city will suddenly begin ticketing or fining people for just sleeping outside, Zaletel said.

The city’s public nuisance code outlines what “prohibited camping” means and timelines and procedures for the municipality to “abate,” or tear down, camps.

Last summer, an encampment at Third Avenue and Ingra Street near downtown swelled to hundreds of people, and the camp saw several deaths, gun violence, assaults, extortion, theft and drug dealing. The city provided security guards and port-a-potties, but said its hands were tied legally and that it couldn’t fully tear down the encampment until it could offer everyone there a shelter bed.

In May, the Assembly added to city code another set of prioritization criteria for tearing down encampments that the municipality deems problematic. The city should first clear camps within 100 feet of protected land use areas, which include paved greenbelt and major trail systems, schools, playgrounds and licensed child care facilities, among others. The next priority is encampments larger than 25 tents, lean-tos or other makeshift shelters, and then any camp within a half-mile of a licensed homeless shelter.


In part, the city was preparing for the Grants Pass decision, in order to create clearer community expectations for abatement and to set out criteria in code that would allow the city to intervene in large encampments, Zaletel said.

“I think all (the Grants Pass decision) does is validate that (the city) can use those additional tools clearly,” Zaletel said.

Alexis Johnson, homeless coordinator with the Bronson administration, said that the city has not yet posted legal abatement notices at the camp along Fairbanks Street, though campers were notified that they needed to move because they’re violating Americans with Disabilities Act and public right-of-way access.

“Regardless of the SCOTUS decision, I think that the tools exist now in code to abate for public safety of the people living in the encampment, because there’s more than 25 structures,” Johnson said.

An ‘urgent question’ for LaFrance

It’s not yet clear whether the LaFrance administration will formally abate Fairbanks Street. In her Friday statement, LaFrance said a transition team of experts is focused on “making a real dent in the homelessness issue.”

When the city chooses to clear encampments, the coalition’s street outreach team coordinates with the city’s Health Department, Parks and Recreation, and police, and offers resources — including shelter or housing when available — to people being forced to leave.

The city recently posted a camp at Jacobson Park in the Rogers Park neighborhood for abatement, and the coalition is helping move all 13 people at the site directly into permanent housing, Zaletel said.

That’s an example of an enforcement response and a solution happening simultaneously — and it takes both, she said.

“We have tools at our disposal, it’s about whether or not we’re going to deploy them, and that’s always the call of the administration,” Zaletel said.

Even though the municipality typically doesn’t ticket or criminally charge people when tearing down encampments, “it’s always in their back pocket,” Glatt said. “And the threat of that criminal sanction has been exercised in the past.”

Some people have been criminally charged during abatements, after protesting or refusing to leave.

“I think it’s really an urgent question for the LaFrance administration to answer: Where can people go where they’re not going to be targeted for abatement simply for being there?” Glatt said. “And by that, I don’t mean that the municipality can’t enforce other laws or take other steps to promote health, safety, peace and dignity.”


‘We don’t know where we can go’

Virginia Christie, a woman staying at Fairbanks Street, said that on Thursday morning, she was awoken by a police officer who gave her a paper notice. Christie said the notice read: “We are abating the area. You need to remove your items immediately or you will be arrested for trespassing.”

She said she was already packed up, “because they’re harassing us.”

She’s frustrated because she wants to find a more secluded place to go where she won’t be hassled by police, but doesn’t know where, she said.

”If the homeless camp is, you know, pretty quiet, kept up, I would think that they don’t have any complaints, you don’t have police contact,” Christie said. “You’re not on private property, Parks and Recreation property ... I think that’s a gray area, but you got to find it. I wish I knew more about what the laws really are.”

”We don’t know where we can go, when, I mean, if we knew where we can go and we don’t get harassed and follow the regulations to keep up camp, because some of us really do care. We don’t want to trash Alaska,” Christie said.

Daily News photojournalist Marc Lester contributed.

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at