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Homeless: Anchorage's unlawful campers need a mayor

  • Author: Scott Woodham
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published June 16, 2011
TO: Anchorage residents without home addresses
CC: Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan; Anchorage residents with home addresses;
SUBJECT: Home Sweet Home

Dear Campers,

We've been concerned about you for a number of years, but seldom more so than last week, when the Municipality of Anchorage started clearing out your unlawful campsites in the city's greenbelts after posting 15-day eviction notices.

We're concerned because prior to the crackdown, you seemed to be living a life of ultimate, though vulnerable, individual freedom right under our urban noses. As we trudge to the next scheduled task in our clock-dominated lives of comfort, some of you give us small comfort that in modern Alaska, it's still possible to pack up a few essentials and hit the great wide open -- even if the great wide open is small and adjacent to a city park, and even if some of you are forced into it by money trouble or addiction. So thanks for reminding us of that. You probably found it out this week, along with the limit to the city's compassion, but not all of Anchorage is grateful of the reminder.

Because some of The Concerned have walked a few miles in your shoes, most of the time we're concerned for your safety. Being down and out isn't fun; humans are social animals, and living on the streets can bring out the worst in people. Frankly, we can't blame some of you for not wanting to go near other transients, even if it means passing up on social services.

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan's push to clear your campsites out of the city and squelch panhandling seems to have a great deal of support from around the community, especially from people who use the trails a lot or live near your tent cities. Let's face it, plenty of you aren't great neighbors. We know not all of you are bad seeds, but you have to admit that leaving piles of trash and scattering potty messes around makes the mayor's case for him. It's not a hard sell, of course; people who live outside normal conventions, for whatever reason, tend to make conventional people uncomfortable.

Now that the municipality is cracking down and storing the stuff you didn't haul away by the city's deadline, we're worried about where you'll go. Will you, as some of you say, simply move deeper into the woods? Will you just skip the few weeks of outlaw freedom you have before having to report to a seasonal job? Will you go home after a night out on the town instead of sleeping it off in the woods? No one seems to know what will happen to you, and that concerns us most of all.

We suspect most of you will continue to live outside because the city hasn't seemed to offer you an alternative, which is why we have a couple of pointers. Some of you say you've already got your new camping spots picked out. First of all, camouflage is key. If no one notices an illegal campsite, it can't be razed. Some of you may have found this out already, but blue tarps and yellow trash bags are easy to spot, especially if they're no more than 10 feet from a trail. And to avoid wearing a path to clue people in on an illegal campsite, be sure to take several different routes to it, and for goodness sake don't break branches or clear any brush – even to untrained eyes, that means people are around.

Another sign of people camping is trash. Sure it's hard for people to care about keeping a clean campsite when they feel disconnected from any kind of wider civic duty, when they may already have a world of trouble on their minds, and when they may be worrying about various forms of assault and addiction, but a clean campsite and respect for the community (foremost your own), is a must.

Some people with addresses in Anchorage have been talking about the city annexing a piece of land, particularly a chunk of Campbell Tract or Far North Bicentennial Park, and setting it aside for your use. The idea is to help you keep a comfortable distance from the city and be conveniently located for social service workers and municipal authorities in one place, rather than spread out around town. Plus, we suspect it would appeal to some Alaska leaders to annex federal land.

That makes a kind of sense to us, but we're still skeptical. The Bicentennial Park area has had plenty of problems lately with bears, Anchorage's other least-favorite residents. We suppose relocating all of Anchorage's unlawful campsites to high-density urban bear country would either be really smart or totally catastrophic. If anything, we suppose the creek there holds fish, maybe enough for a few meals anyway, and the bears would be a great incentive to keep a clean campsite.

We The Concerned have been to enough lawless hippie music festivals to know that if no one from inside a group speaks up about "uncool" behavior, it becomes the norm. And then soon enough, there's a pack of misbehaving, free-love dogs running around snatching food and snapping at toddlers, and people are stealing and calling it communal living. We know part of the idea of camping far, far out is to avoid rules and whatnot, and far be it from us to be buzzkills, but maybe some of you should give thought to telling fellow campers who misbehave to knock it off. Except the armed ones; it'd be best to not rock their boats yourselves. We The Concerned aren't advocating vigilantism or anything, but if people bent on destruction know the urban woods aren't totally without expectations for decorum, they might think twice.

You might also consider informally electing your own mayor. That person (or council) could mediate disputes and help keep a kind of peace by balancing interests on behalf of the public good. Toronto's Kevin Clarke, known for almost a decade as his city's "Homeless Mayor," has had standard housing since 2005, but he appears available for consultation. He ran for provincial and national office a few times, and once ran an entire mayoral campaign from one of the city's shelters. He might have some ideas on where to start organizing an informal structure that helps your community protect its own interests without getting tangled up in the criminal system and winding up costing taxpayers in jail.

Of course, the problem you pose to city leaders is difficult -- unfortunately, no modern urban society has ever solved it completely. Anchorage is just doing the only thing it can think of. It's not like the city can just ship you to another town, as so many other cities have done with their homeless populations. It's apparently just easier to scatter you around the city or lock you up than it is to deal with the underlying reasons people wind up in your situation and then either fail or don't choose to rejoin society.

Either way, getting people off the streets or moving them out of sight are both much easier than getting violence out of people's hearts and poverty out of the economy.

Stay safe out there,
The Concerned

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