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Anchorage's new summer strategies for dealing with homelessness

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 11, 2016

To get people off the streets and out of homeless camps this summer, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said Wednesday his administration plans to launch a work van service to connect people who are homeless or panhandling with day labor. Berkowitz says his administration is also boosting summer park maintenance staff to help clean up homeless camps.

Berkowitz called the camps "something visible to everyone here in town" in a Wednesday meeting with Assembly members and other officials.

"If we want to have a community that's safe, not just for folks in the camps and the community at large, it's something we can't ignore," Berkowitz said.

With summer fast approaching, elected officials say they're getting more complaints about illegal camps in public parks. The chair of the Assembly's homelessness and public safety committees, Bill Evans, said he arranged the meeting Wednesday to try to get officials on the same page about a plan for tackling the camps, though the meeting touched broadly on issues with homelessness.

No major policy changes emerged out of the meeting, and there were plenty of unresolved questions on thorny issues, like storage for personal belongings recovered in homeless camps. But there appeared to be general support for the city shifting its emphasis from clearing illegal camps to moving people from the camps into housing.

So far this year, police have received reports of 298 homeless camps, said Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley. Garry Gilliam, the deputy chief of operations for the Anchorage Police Department, estimated that about 75 people are making up the majority of the camps.

That's down from the 2010 camping numbers, when estimates ranged between 200 and 300 people, Gilliam said.

By the middle of next month, Berkowitz said, his administration expects to have housed 82 people who were homeless, largely through state programs. Nancy Burke, the city homelessness coordinator, has led efforts to compile a list, now numbering around 200 people, of the city's most vulnerable homeless people. The administration has been holding weekly meetings to monitor the people on the list, Burke said.

The idea of a van program to connect homeless people with day-labor jobs like trail maintenance and trash pickup, Burke said, is modeled after a successful program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She said the money paid to the workers could go toward rental subsidies. She said she didn't have an exact budget, but said the program's cost wouldn't exceed $100,000, and she expects it to launch in the next few weeks. The mayor's office asked the Assembly for $425,000 for homeless programs during the April budget revisions.

As for illegal campsites in public parks, Berkowitz said the Anchorage Police Department will continue to post eviction notices and those camps will be dismantled. Evidence of criminal activity in the camps, Berkowitz said, would lead to "an appropriate police action."

Police said they don't plan to change the way they're handling homeless camps anytime soon -- a process that today involves giving 15 days' notice before a camp can be completely cleared out and the items disposed of.

The city can also remove illegal campsites with 72 hours' notice, but in that case, the city has to store all the belongings and allow the people to go back and reclaim them -- a process police described as a logistical nightmare.

After a back-and-forth in Wednesday's meeting about noticing requirements, Josh Decker, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said he would evaluate whether his organization would oppose a 10-day noticing period. The ACLU sued in 2010 to block a city law that allowed police to clear homeless camps with as little as 12 hours' notice.

Assemblywoman Amy Demboski said it would be more valuable for the city to be dealing with bigger questions.

"Are we making sure who (has) mental health care issues, drug addiction issues, whatever issues they may have, making sure we successfully incorporate them into getting resources they need?" Demboski said.

She also said the Assembly should particularly encourage private-sector efforts to develop housing, such as for homeless veterans.

As city officials try to boost coordination on homeless camp strategy, there's been similar activity on the community council level. Representatives from five community councils -- North Star, South Addition, Fairview, Rogers Park and Airport Heights -- met last week to talk about homeless camps.

At Wednesday's meeting, Chris Constant of the Fairview Community Council told Assembly members that the councils want the city to more clearly define its process for what happens between residents calling in to report camps, and post signs banning alcohol and drug use throughout the greenbelt.

Constant said the councils also want a more consistent police presence on the trails.

Burke, the homelessness coordinator, said the administration is working on developing a website with information about how the city can legally respond to camps and make it easier for neighbors to file reports.

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