No plan for ‘homesteaders’ in Anchorage greenbelts is a bad plan for everyone

I have walked the Chester Creek Trail for years. I avoid it now. I go to take photos to document the nests of human waste, garbage and all manner of items stolen from my neighbors, to prove to the municipality why it must immediately eradicate this situation. And I do not go alone.

For the past 25 years, in my professional life, I found solutions for homeless, indigent and disabled people with serious mental and substance use disorders that contributed to criminal justice involvement. It was difficult but not impossible. I also sentenced thousands of people whose involvement in the criminal justice system resulted not from disabilities or vulnerabilities but from criminal thinking, choices and harmful actions. I know the difference, and there are more of the latter living on the Chester Creek trail now than ever before.

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In years gone by, I saw the chronically homeless with backpacks full of their earthly possessions make the trek from small tents to 3rd Avenue for food and warmth and back again to sleep. The demographic I saw were vulnerable and disabled people, more likely victims than victimizers. I didn't fear them, and they all loved my dog. Recently, the trail has been systematically and massively homesteaded by a capable, self-determined, highly criminal element whose members believe they have an entitlement to homestead parklands set aside for community recreation.

These compounds are occupied by able-bodied and industrious people – nearly every site has stolen bikes, frames and parts, used for transportation and for chopping into components for resale. There are stolen propane tanks and stacked wood for stoves, open fires and cooking, as well as baby bicycle carts and stolen shopping carts for hauling all of this stuff into camp mostly from adjacent landowner victims of their thefts. The most disturbing aspect are the latrines, injection, drinking and drugging sites and the dump stations for tons of garbage and refuse, fuel and open fires.

The city cannot resolve how to evict and abate these encampments, and that failure has functionally evicted the community from using the park as it was intended. The city can't ignore these widespread conditions any longer. The proportions are such that residents cannot abide it. The camps are a danger to the campers and the community. Garbage attracts rodents and other vermin. Lack of food storage and food remains spread food-borne diseases. Campers use the land and the creek, where adults and children recreate, for human waste and cleaning. Poor hygiene contributes to a variety of health problems. It is a breeding ground for infections, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. Propane heaters and grills used to heat tents and to cook, batteries and other fuels, and open fires — often tended by intoxicated persons — are a danger to users and the surrounding communities. Finally, and hardly least, victimization of the poor, disabled and vulnerable homeless, particularly women, by those seeking the cover of the woods for concealed drugging and criminal predation, is rampant in these encampments.

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Take the walk between Valley of the Moon and Lake Otis on the Chester Creek trail and view the camps, because you will not believe what I write here until you have seen them. The occupants will berate you for having entered "their property," located just feet away from a sign that says "Property of Municipality of Anchorage – The following activities are prohibited: Camping, building fires, cutting or damage to trees, construction of structures, dumping of refuse, etc."

Homesteading on the trail has burgeoned due to its convenience to downtown services and to subsistence theft from midtown stores and adjacent residences. Campers balance the convenience of the location against visibility and the likelihood of complaints and eviction. Wooded trail locations balance visibility and convenience by providing great cover. These homesteaders know the probability they will be evicted is low and they know how to work the process — move, if they have to, but not far down the same trail.  They are reinforced in their lifestyle choices by a municipal government that takes minimal, intermittent action to intervene only when sufficient mountains of waste have collected that a group of citizens becomes vocal and demands action.

The new demographic of homesteaders on the trail are not homeless by the traditional definition. They have lined out, settled and consider the trail their home. They are not motivated by opportunities to work or a path to housing. Motivation for them must be built through a strategic plan of lawful notice and eviction, timely abatement, community reintegration through service connection, prevention of relocation and clearing of overgrown brush and dead tree-fall that conceal illegal activities and new homesteads.

The municipality and various partners are completing an Anchorage 2018 Strategic Community Action Plan to End Homelessness. That plan has no strategic plank to address the public health and safety issues posed by encampments. Residents are truly fed up and will not forgive any failure to include a long term plan to address these public health and safety concerns in that plan, much like the one included in the Utah Homeless Action Planning efforts called Operation Rio Grande. The Utah plan cannot be superimposed on Anchorage, but it is a place to begin strategic planning to eradicate lawless homesteading while identifying, connecting to services and stabilizing homeless persons.

Without a strategic plan, the municipality's current plan — a tent-by-tent whack-a-mole game of eviction and cleanup — is no plan. That approach will cost more in the long run than having an endgame plan. All the while, regular community is disabled from using public parks.

Many ask where the trail squatters will go. Some may have their own alternatives when illegal camping is removed as an option. Some will need accommodation and service connection. The question of where they will go has become so paralytic that it has effectively turned over our parks to illegal homesteading in lieu of finding the answer. The answer to this question must be contained in the 2018 Municipal Homeless Plan or it will not be an effective plan. Turning a blind eye toward the massive number of illegal trail occupants living in filth and laying waste to public land because the municipality has insufficient sleeping options is no longer an option.

Residents have been displaced from their commuter trails and public parks because they fear those who now control them. Many of the displaced are conscientious people who love their city. We wish to be part of the solution by contributing our ideas to a public health, safety and reintegration plank to the 2018 Homeless Action Plan to appropriately address illegal homesteading — a plan that should also appropriately address the serious problems experienced by those who are not homeless by choice.

Stephanie Rhoades is a retired District Court Judge who lives downtown. She started one of the first Mental Health Courts in the United States in 1992 in Anchorage. She serves on the Board of Anchorage Community Mental Health Services and is the lead food coordinator for Project Homeless Connect.