Lisa Sauder, the director of Bean's Cafe, returned from vacation last week to find the area around the downtown Anchorage soup kitchen transformed.
She was used to crowds of people and tents lining the sidewalk. Staff at Bean's Cafe contended with volatile tempers and troublemakers. Police cars, firetrucks and ambulances cycled daily through the parking lot.
But suddenly, there were few people outside. The sidewalks had been emptied of tents and squatters. Four cop cars were hunkered down for the evening.
This was the result of an experiment by the city aimed at mounting problems with emergency calls, drug-dealing and violence in the shelter vicinity. Since Jan. 2, a team of police officers, paramedic firefighters and social workers have been stationed consistently at the emergency shelters in an attempt to create order and provide aid.
"There were some folks down there who were really unsafe, dealing drugs," said city homeless coordinator Nancy Burke. "There was bad stuff happening down there."
At the same time, the city wants to reverse an escalating and expensive flood of non-emergency 911 calls that strained police and fire resources and affected deployment to other parts of the city. Anchorage has struggled to keep pace with the demand for ambulance service in recent years. Data show the city's emergency medical responses have increased by about 25 percent since 2010, with some of the highest incident volume occurring in the three-block grid around Brother Francis Shelter. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of emergency medical responses to the area more than doubled.
This month, the city also created a "trespass zone" in a four-block radius of Bean's and Brother Francis. Too often, people who were kicked out of the emergency shelter for violent behavior just set up camp across the street or came to the soup kitchen for meals, Burke said.
Now there are maps marking "no camping" from Post Road to Ingra Street and First Avenue to Fourth Avenue. A person who is removed for violence from the shelter or soup kitchen will be banned from the entire area, not just the immediate buildings, Burke said. So far, a judge has granted one such trespass order, said Lt. Jack Carson, the commander of the unit that has been stationed at the shelter.
Other cities have taken similar steps. In Salt Lake City, a police operation around a troubled emergency shelter led to hundreds of arrests and, critics said, the abrupt dispersal of the homeless around the community. Property owners up the hill from Bean's Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter say they've noticed more tents just outside of the larger "no camping" zone.
But for Sauder and others, there was familiarity in the relative calm that has descended on the shelter and soup kitchen.
"This was what the campus was," Sauder, who became the executive director in 2013, said last week.
To measure success, Burke and city officials plan to look at the number of police and fire department calls to the shelter and soup kitchen. The calls had until recently been flooding the city's 911 lines on a daily basis, with effects that rippled across Anchorage.
'A mini mass-casualty'
It's mid-December, and emergency medical battalion chief Mark Monfore's dispatch screen showed a 31-year-old woman with chest pain and a 56-year-old man having trouble breathing. Both were at 1021 E. Third Ave., the address for the Brother Francis Shelter.
Monfore has studied the numbers to make a case for adding ambulances to the fire department's fleet in recent years. At times, Monfore said, the grid around the soup kitchen and shelter has ranked at the top for incident volume. The number of EMS calls surpassed 2,400 in 2017, compared to roughly 700 in 2010.
Driving his supervisor truck, Monfore followed an ambulance to the shelter. That day, dozens of people were walking around out front. The ambulance pulled up to the front of Brother Francis Shelter. A shaking woman in a Batman hat climbed in and a paramedic took her pulse.
The woman told the paramedics she had "episodes" that lasted two hours. Moments later, she walked back across the parking lot and disappeared inside Bean's Cafe.
Paramedics also fetched the man from the health clinic inside Brother Francis and loaded him onto a gurney. The man was frail and said he had a sharp pain in his chest. Ian Buness, a firefighter paramedic, started asking him questions.
During the 2015 epidemic of the synthetic drug known as Spice, paramedics were seeing roughly a dozen patients at a time at the Brother Francis Shelter, Monfore said.
"It was like a mini-mass casualty type thing," Monfore said.
To keep up with demand downtown, dispatchers pull ambulances and firetrucks from all over Anchorage. The situation has tapered off since the Spice epidemic, officials said, but the system is still overtaxed.
"If your kid is down with a broken leg, we're probably downtown dealing with a different call than running calls a person would classically think of as ambulance calls," said Chip Serns, a paramedic firefighter with Station 4.
Serns and his co-workers were seeing the same people multiple times on a shift. And repeated rides to the emergency room weren't solving chronic health problems, Serns said.
Now fire officials are trying something new. Paramedic firefighter Mike Riley, who has a background in what's called "community paramedicine," has been part of the team at Bean's Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter this month, joining cops and social workers patrolling the shelter parking lot and the blocks nearby.
Riley's duties have included helping shelter staff and clients know when to call an ambulance. For a seizure, for example, medication from the Brother Francis Shelter health clinic would be more effective than a trip to the emergency room, said assistant fire chief Alex Boyd. In at least one case, Riley recognized that a "seizure" was actually an uncooperative client pretending to have a seizure, Boyd said — an event that might have drawn down an entire ambulance crew as well as police in the past.
The idea, Boyd said, is that 911 calls should be reserved for true emergencies.
It's a sharp shift in approach for the fire department. Boyd said officials hope to lift some of the strain on the system and help at-risk populations find more permanent solutions to heath problems.
So far, officials say, the signs have been encouraging. In the first week of January, police and fire calls for Bean's Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter dropped roughly 30 percent compared to the same week last year. The city's plans call for a 25 percent drop in emergency calls overall each quarter.
Stationed at Bean's Cafe last week, officer Sally Jones crossed the street to approach a group of men standing on the sidewalk. No one claimed ownership of a bottle of Vitali Premium Vodka, which Jones emptied onto the street before the men moved along.
Jones and her fellow officers, along with paramedics like Riley and social workers, will be a regular presence at the shelter for the next six months or more, said Burke, the city homeless coordinator.
After that, plans call for increased security to continue. Burke said the city expects to negotiate a security contract to cover both the soup kitchen and the shelter. She said the police presence will fade as new security policies and procedures take effect. By the summer, officials hope to be building a fence around the shelter parking lot to better control access inside.
In the short term, orange traffic cones mark the mouth of the parking lot. Clients now have to check in for the night and turn over weapons, drugs and alcohol.
Longtime clients at Bean's described a safer atmosphere. Inside the soup kitchen on Wednesday, it was calm and quiet. People were gathered to watch a movie on a TV on one wall.
Ron Uyeno has been a regular at Bean's Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter since the 1990s. He was down in Anchorage on a break from working on whaling crews in Utqiagvik. He said the place feels safer now.
"It's pushing away the bootleggers and all the ones selling Spice," Uyeno said.
Rebecca Paulsen, 42, who said she's been coming consistently to Bean's Cafe for two years, described the changes as a "shocker" to a lot of people who live at the shelter.
At first, people were offended by the constant presence of police, she said. But she said the situation has been calming down. People understand it's about safety, Paulsen said.
Some nearby property owners were worried about unintended consequences. Rob Cupples, who owns property just east of the shelters, has been critical of the way the changes happened. Almost as soon as the new boundary took effect, Cupples said, he noticed tent encampments popping up across the street from his Hyder Street properties.
"All these problem individuals, if they can't be in that boundary, they're surrounding my property and loitering in the parking lot next door," Cupples said.
Burke said behavior has improved overall in the area around the shelter. A small number of people have dispersed, she said. She said social workers plan to track and contact those people, she said, to try to shepherd them toward housing and help.