Anchorage is experiencing a crisis of massive entrenched encampments occupying and destroying the value of our public spaces. We should never have let this happen, and we should not let it continue.
Our community is too good to allow our poor, disabled and disadvantaged citizens to live without shelter because they have no alternative. We are too smart to enable those who are capable of finding alternatives to occupy our public spaces for convenience and to support a lawless lifestyle.
We should be both too good and too smart to allow the kind of squalor currently defiling our public spaces to exist at all or to allow anyone to live in it, for any reason.
This is partly a problem of our own making. Past litigation led our community leaders to adopt a risk-averse, ineffective approach to dealing with camping in public spaces. They have been cowed by fear of litigation and, perhaps, fear that taxpayers would object to putting resources into more comprehensive and effective strategies. The result has been an approach that is too timid and too limited to be effective.
What we do now is insufficient to assist all those camping because they have no alternatives. Worse, it enables rather than prevents the proliferation of massive, near-perpetual encampments by those who occupy our public spaces by choice to live an unfettered lifestyle supported by crime.
We have established a "community norm" of passive acceptance, enabling ever-growing numbers of entrenched encampments — whether by camper choice or necessity — that present real and growing public health and safety risks to the the campers and our community.
We have to reverse the "norm" of enabling. Laws nominally prohibiting camping in our public spaces mean nothing without real enforcement. Enabling people to camp in our public spaces does nothing to assist them and only reinforces maladaptive behaviors. We must make camping in public space difficult, temporary and ultimately unnecessary. But we must do so with compassion and respect for the legitimate rights of all citizens. This will require changes in policies and strategies, reallocation of existing resources and likely additional resources over time.
The municipality's current efforts to address homelessness primarily focus on creating and linking homeless persons to permanent housing options. This is necessary but insufficient. Citizens see no appreciable results from housing efforts and instead see a startling proliferation of camps that are orders of magnitude larger and of a starkly different nature from those of the past.
These near-permanent camps have turned our community's public spaces into waste dumps overwhelmed by tons of garbage and dangerous, sometimes toxic, waste and biohazards. There are now concentrated "communities" of multiple camp sites covering acres of public land and serving as the headquarters of theft operations.
Citizens and businesses are demanding action by our government to change the intolerable trajectory of illegal camping and associated crime within and emanating from our public spaces. They are also offering support for effective government action as well as volunteer assistance to address these problems. Our leaders should not fear lack of support for real solutions.
The handwringing that there is "nothing we can do" or that doing anything will cost too much must stop. We are already paying the price for inaction in myriad ways (including a "theft tax" on surrounding neighborhoods and businesses) but doing so without a plan, without knowing the real cost, and to little effect. We can take effective action if we have the will.
Here are some concrete actions our leaders can take now to stop illegal camping. With continued focus on developing long term housing options for those truly in need we can change our community for the better.
– Add a public health and safety component to the 2018 Strategic Action Plan of the Anchorage Community Plan to End Homelessness (and all future such plans).
– Clearly post existing code prohibitions against camping on public lands to enable swift abatement of camps occurring in posted areas.
– Hire or assign a Parks and Recreation code enforcement officer(s) to continuously monitor public spaces and identify illegal camps.
– Expand the Mobile Intervention Team to seven days per week, so illegal camps can be noticed quickly and entrenched encampments cannot be developed.
– Amend municipal code to allow more efficient "zone" notices in areas of illegal camp concentrations rather than requiring individual notices on each tent/camp.
– Amend municipal code (AMC 15.20.020.B.15.c.iii) to more narrowly and reasonably define "personal property" of illegal campers (in accord with court guidance) to exclude items that deter camp abatement (generators, collections of propane tanks, etc.).
– Amend municipal code (AMC 16.120.020) to allow utilization of "cold weather" shelter alternatives year-round to assure alternative housing is available for campers displaced by camp abatements, and fund more shelter beds if needed.
– Amend municipal code (AMC 25.70.040.A.2 and 25.70.050 and 25.70.060.O) to allow confiscation of materials used for illegal fires in illegal camps in public space and to allow immediate abatement of camps violating fire codes as public safety risks.
– Enforce existing code prohibitions on open burns and use of cooking appliances and fuels (such as propane stoves, grills and wood stoves) outside of designated areas.
– Develop an economical and efficient means of storing personal property of campers (such as providing lockable 64 gallon bins to hold property) so camps can be abated and cleaned up without delay using the 72 hour notice process allowed in municipal code (AMC 15.20.020.B.15.b.i).
– Begin immediately publishing routine and complete reports on all illegal camps identified and actions taken to remove them (including when they were identified, noticed, abated and cleaned), so municipal actions are transparent and accountable to citizens. Make the data searchable online by citizens.
– Establish a comprehensive plan for removing low brush, particularly invasive species, along our trail system to create a more open understory with better sight lines. This will make our green spaces less inviting and encampments harder to hide.
Russ Webb is a longtime Anchorage resident.