The way 36-year-old Dwayne Nelson died should shame us all.
If you thought “Who?” upon seeing Nelson’s name, you’re not alone. He was the man who fell down on Benson Boulevard at around 1 a.m. on May 8, laying in the roadway for more than an hour before he was hit by a vehicle and killed. Upon reading his story, many of us likely had a similar response: a pang of conscience that no one driving past him on Benson had stopped to help or call 911 — and, even in the wee hours of the morning, there must have been many. This was shortly followed by our minds reassuring us that surely, had we ourselves encountered him, we would have done something. Wouldn’t we?
It’s nice to think we would, but we shouldn’t be so sure. Overcoming our fear of uncertain situations and developing the will to confront them is harder than we think. Diverting from our own affairs to check on something that looks wrong in the middle of the night — or even calling authorities so that they will — is an easy thing to believe we’ll do in theory and a much harder thing to do in practice. We’ve been desensitized by the visibility of people experiencing homelessness in high-traffic to the point that we don’t react to situations where things are obviously not right and need attention. And we owe it to ourselves and our community to be the ones who do stop and make that call or assess that situation rather than simply driving past.
Fortunately, the municipality, community nonprofit organizations and private businesses are doing their part in not standing idly by. In recent weeks along the Chester Creek Trail, Anchorage Parks and Recreation employees have been doing the hard work of zone-based clearing and cleanup of encampments. They’re moving out trash, clearing undergrowth and making attempts to connect illegal campers with services they can benefit from, such as temporary or permanent housing, medical care or mental health services. The crews’ efforts are already paying huge dividends with regard to the character of the city’s central green space, and helping move some of Anchorage’s most vulnerable residents to places where better care and more stable living arrangements are possible. Once zones are cleared, we should do our best to keep them this way. Maintaining a well-kept space is easier than allowing the mess to repeatedly build up. Enforcing rules against illegal camping will lead those who want help to seek it, as well as discourage the criminals who don’t.
Meanwhile, efforts to develop and expand temporary and permanent housing solutions are underway. The municipality and its partners are working to increase cold-weather shelter capacity to provide for the estimated need of 150 more beds when it’s too cold to be outside overnight. New families are being housed in the Path to Independence and Providence Rapid Re-Housing Services programs. And the Pay for Success pilot program will house its first candidate in June.
And there are ways we can help address the situation on a personal level. The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness’ Homeless Management Information System contains helpful information about the state of homelessness in Anchorage, as well as tips for being a good neighbor. There’s also a site where you can report homeless camps and give information that will help the municipality’s Mobile Intervention Teams to connect campers with services they may need and direct them to safer, more stable places to stay.
Making progress on homelessness and related issues in Anchorage starts with compassion and not turning away from the problem. Pitching in to help when and where we can isn’t often the easiest path, but it’s the one that leads toward a better community. If any of us were laying in the road, we’d hope our neighbors would do something.