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Q&A: After string of Anchorage street deaths, 'It's a very helpless feeling right now'

  • Author: Marc Lester
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 5, 2015

On a normal day, Bean's Cafe is full of people. Many more stand in the parking lot of the downtown Anchorage soup kitchen and on the sidewalks of Third Avenue and nearby streets. Others sit or sleep in the grass and woods of neighboring blocks. Hundreds of people, mostly homeless, turn to Bean's for meals and a place to be indoors for part of the day.

Even by the overwhelming circumstances that, for Bean's, are standard, it has been a difficult time.

Seven people who were known at Bean's have recently died, many found on Anchorage streets.

On Wednesday, their names -- Patrick Soolook, Harry Oxereok, Chester Ferreira, Chena Hall, Johnny Good, Ella Mae Clarke, Jolene Odomin -- were read aloud and their friends given a chance to mourn in a simple, emotional ceremony led by Anchorage police and fire chaplains.

Series: Man down: Chronic alcoholism on the streets of Anchorage

Before it began, Bean's executive director Lisa Sauder appeared rattled. Shaken by the loss of several members of a community she looks after, she wanted to let the others know she's there and she cares. She wanted to ask them to make good choices and point them toward people who can help.

If that wasn't difficult enough, Sauder said several other people in the vicinity of Bean's had been hospitalized earlier in the day. All, she said, got sick after smoking Spice, a cheap and dangerous marijuana substitute. Anchorage police say that's been happening frequently this week.

Sauder said she felt certain one person's condition was critical. She anxiously awaited word about whether that client would live or die.

Before the start of the memorial, I asked her to share her perspective on a difficult day.

Tell me about what the last two or three weeks have been like here at Bean's.

I don't know what other words to use other than what I've been saying, which is devastating. It's been devastating to the staff, to the clients, to the volunteers. To lose that many people in such a short time frame, in what should be the height of the summer season, when the weather is good, it scares us all. And we're really hopeful that today, by bringing folks together, not only to remember the ones that we've lost recently but to connect them with services… (we can) make sure that we're operating every program at 100 percent capacity. We know we have limited resources right now in our community for detox, for rehab, for supportive housing. But we have some, and we cannot leave any bed empty. We need to cut through the red tape, through whatever barriers there may be, as much as possible, and fill every bed.

Did you know these people in particular?

I knew most of them. They've all used our facilities, our services, at one time or another. Some of them we were particularly close to and had worked with a lot.

Who is gathering here today (for the memorial service)? Is this mostly people who spend time here at Bean's pretty regularly?

It's a little bit of everything. It's our regular clients, it's our community partners that provide services to this population. It's the mayor. It's the first lady, Donna Walker. It's community people who care and are worried about what's happening and want to come and show their support.

Can you give me a broader view of the population you serve and how it's grown in recent years?

We continue to see an increase in the need for our services. We're open 365 days a year. We offer two meals a day and referrals for services, whether that be mental health, drug or alcohol treatment, health care, immediate medical needs. Band-Aids, might be. They might need an ibuprofen. They might need a feminine hygiene product. It's all the things that, if you had a home, you could walk (to) your medicine cabinet and grab. We handle mail for several thousand people. So we're really, for a lot of people, their home. This is their community. People come here, they volunteer. That's one of the stories that you never hear about, is the fact that our clients volunteer over a hundred thousand hours a year. We could not operate this facility without our clients who come, some of them, seven days a week and work all day long preparing meals, cleaning, doing whatever needs to be done.

I sense you and the people who work here are not only sad but also frustrated.

It's a very helpless feeling right now, because we don't know. Is there a connection between all these deaths? Do I believe there is? I think there is some commonality. You don't lose seven people in two and a half weeks, ranging from 23 to 61 (years old), male, female, white, Native. Addiction does not discriminate. And I'm concerned about the Spice that we're seeing, the reports that we're getting from our clients, the drugs that have been confiscated in our area. We're seeing a lot of it.

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