OPINION: You can pass through Midtown Anchorage, but you can’t leave its complicated truths behind

Driving by the Anchorage Midtown Walmart recently, I saw a woman’s body curled on the corner where shoppers turn in. She was maybe 90 pounds, face turned skyward, jaw slack, eyes closed. At some other point in time, someone might have stopped to check her pulse or call an ambulance. We don’t live in that kind of town now. In Midtown, human bodies are part of the landscaping.

Driving through our city’s central business district is a sermon, in the way that form leads a person through a moral topic and causes them to reflect on their responsibilities in a broken world. Every other corner hosts a tableau of plastic liquor bottles, grungy sleeping bags and suffering, an ethical knot to untie. To turn away is to engage in delusion, to witness is to be helpless with despair. I pray in the car all the time, but it’s not enough.

Midtown is different from every other neighborhood in Anchorage because most of the indoor space is owned by businesses or landlords, people who don’t live there. The people who do live there are mostly renters, some of the poorest in the city. In that way, everybody is sort of transient, just passing through. Maybe that’s why nobody feels like they’re responsible for what happens there.

At the stoplight by Northern Lights Bingo, I often think about the way we confuse luck with something we feel we’ve earned. All winter there was a man who used to stand at that corner as I was taking my son to soccer practice. Young, bare-handed, mumbling into another dimension, he held an unreadable sign on a piece of yellow legal paper. He’d stare right into my son’s eyes through the window. My son began to dread that stretch of road. He told me the man made him feel afraid.

What do you say to a kid about that? Do you tell him it’s not really fear he’s feeling but instead the stark randomness of his own luck? Do you tell him the guy wouldn’t be there if he wasn’t unmedicated or drunk or lazy? Do you say something about choices? I’m ashamed I didn’t often say much. In that way, by example, I taught my child to be numb to suffering. I know from history that kind of self-deception is how atrocities happen, especially when practiced by a whole community, but I didn’t know what else to do.

Once, walking into Walmart midwinter, I saw a woman lying against the wall outside, blood pouring from her head. Intellectually I knew she was also screaming, but somehow I couldn’t hear it as the automatic doors opened and swallowed me inside with my shopping list. I was buying cake mix, Funfetti flavor. I passed an older couple quibbling in Korean in the produce section and a not-all-that-young couple, dressed in matching fleece dragon costumes, holding hands.

Walmart is as American as it gets. That place has everything — insulin, papayas, ammo, thong underwear, diamond rings, air fryers — but so many in its orbit are on the edge of having nothing at all. When I got outside the store, a full moon bloomed overhead as paramedics loaded the bleeding woman into an ambulance. A pregnant woman walked by leading a herd of kids inside, all of them licking Ring Pops. At that moment, the parking lot felt like the center of the city, or maybe the universe — ingenuity and filth, weirdness and convention, humanity, darkness. You can pass through Midtown, but you can’t leave its complicated truths behind.


Years ago, when I worked at the Anchorage Daily News, I wrote dozens of stories about people living in shelters, cars and camps. I attended public meetings, talked to clergy, politicians, advocates, economists and national experts. Proven, but imperfect, solutions played on repeat. Somehow our city is still scratching its head a decade later. Truth is, there is no total cure for homelessness because there will always be people who have more than they need and some who can never transcend what’s stacked against them, no matter how hard they work. That, too, is as American as it gets.

The tools Anchorage has to address Midtown’s street corners can be separated into the categories of more and less expensive, more and less humane. It’s less expensive and more humane to provide modest housing that offers quiet and privacy, without the requirement that people be sober or sane. It’s less expensive and more humane to make drug and mental health treatment available. Functional safety net systems like the food stamp program help. Affordable housing helps. So do programs that assist people as they transition out of jail. Big emergency shelters are more humane than no shelters, but they do little to move people off the street long-term.

A couple of years ago, before we went all-in on more expensive and less humane, before the summer fiasco of handing out tents and sending old people and disabled people and mentally ill people and people with children to live in a muddy campground roamed by bears, and the winter when more people died on the streets than anyone can remember, I found myself sitting on the flight from Juneau next to Mayor Dave Bronson. It was mid-pandemic, early in his term, and neither one of us was interested in talking about politics. We talked about food and I told him how precious Anchorage is to me. I asked what he cared most about doing during his term as mayor. He said he wanted to solve homelessness.

He thought maybe there was a way to get to the root of it, addiction in particular. I told him what I knew: Sobriety comes from inside and the government can’t touch it. Nobody’s written a statute to address heartache, which in many cases goes back generations, and leads people to drink or shoot up or lose touch with reality in a way that keeps them from paying rent, I said. His plan wasn’t formed, he told me, but he thought maybe he could come up with something.

Some of the smartest people I’ve met during the years I covered homelessness were people of faith. Up until the last few years, faith-based organizations did the lion’s share of sheltering in Anchorage. Their politics were all over the map, but they were invested in reducing costs and harm. Critically, they accepted that some clients were never going to get better, no matter the system of punishments or rewards. In fact, some people may live and die intractably dishonest, dysfunctional, crazy, addicted, criminal, intolerable. They cared for them anyway, because they believed even the most broken among us should eat and sleep inside. One word for that concept is mercy. I appreciated Bronson’s optimism and confidence, but as we talked, I didn’t get a sense he understood that at all.

Last summer I used to see a fellow with no legs laboring to push his wheelchair up the A Street hill all the time. He’d spend his days panhandling on Fireweed Lane. I kept trying to figure out how I came to live in a town where there wasn’t a better place for that guy. My mom says that we get the community we vote for. It occurred to me I might be in the minority. You grow up here and you think you understand this place, but Anchorage is always changing. Maybe Midtown is the way most people think it should be.

One day, when I was idling at that guy’s corner, at Fireweed and C Street, I happened to have a dollar in my pocket. I rolled down the window and held it out to him. I didn’t understand until then that his wheelchair couldn’t make it past the curb without spilling him into the street. He reached out and just about had my bill when I let go and the wind caught it. It floated into the street. His face crumpled with disappointment. The light turned green. Helplessness froze me from the inside. Somebody honked. I had to go. And so I stepped on the gas, and left him behind, the way you do when you’re passing through Midtown.

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Julia O'Malley

Anchorage-based Julia O'Malley is a former ADN reporter, columnist and editor. She received a James Beard national food writing award in 2018, and a collection of her work, "The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska," was published in 2019. She's currently a guest curator at the Anchorage Museum.