Just two weeks ago, we asked if the Municipality of Anchorage would get its act together in time to keep the Centennial Campground homeless encampment from being another Sullivan Arena — a sprawling conglomeration of unhoused people with serious unmet needs and no certain timeline for addressing them. A fortnight later, we have our answer: Centennial Campground is not the Sullivan Arena.
It’s far worse.
The tally of incidents at the campground grows day by day, both in number and severity: Bears raiding campers’ tents, followed by four bears being killed — then a fifth, with more likely to follow. ‘Deplorable’ conditions. Acts of violence. A near-total lack of security and other important services on-site. An overdose death. And, on Wednesday, a shooting in the midst of the camp that left two people, one a police officer, seriously wounded.
By almost all measures, the slapdash campground experiment has been an abject failure, and its toll is beginning to be measured in lives. If the city doesn’t make some big changes soon, that toll will climb.
The most bizarre and clearly false response to the Centennial Campground situation is the insistence by Mayor Dave Bronson and his administration that the mass campsite is not a part of the municipality’s homeless response. It’s a response that would be laughable if it weren’t deadly serious: Of course the campground is part of the municipality’s homeless response. Greenbelt campers who were pushed out of their scattered sites were told to go there and given coupons to do so. Municipal employees helped transport their belongings. The municipality shuttled campers there on buses. Sixty-eight people left without shelter when the Sullivan closed were told Centennial Campground was an alternative.
The only support for the administration’s claim is the fact that the municipality is intentionally withholding services from the campground that were present at Sullivan Arena — an arrangement that is becoming unconscionable. Without reliable security or medical services present, nonprofits such as the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness have said they don’t believe the campground can be made safe for campers or service workers.
In stark contrast to the municipal administration’s shirking responsibility for the campground, Anchorage residents have stepped up into the vacuum to try to provide services that will help campers maintain their health and dignity. This ad hoc effort has included Bean’s Café bringing in prepared meals, the Salvation Army providing logistical support, community members coming together to package snacks and donated camping equipment at Mad Myrna’s, as well as the many volunteers who have given time and material support on-site at the campground.
But the bottom line is that none of these efforts will ultimately be able to provide a long-term solution that gets campers out of way before they fall afoul of the dangers of outdoor living, by the time the weather turns cold, if not before.
First, the municipal administration must own up to the fact that Centennial Campground is a central part of its homeless plan in the short term, and provide the necessary services to make the campground safe for those who are staying there in the absence of permanent housing. And Mayor Dave Bronson needs to clearly articulate his vision for getting the hundreds of outdoor campers placed in indoor shelter by the time winter comes. Squabbles over funding sources and the use of particular facilities must not delay action to keep Anchorage’s most vulnerable residents safe.
On the campaign trail, Bronson promised that unhoused people freezing to death in winter would be unacceptable on his watch. He should adopt a similar attitude toward deaths in summer and get real about his administration’s responsibility for the many people who are currently warehoused among the bears at Centennial Campground.