Alaska News

Campbell Creek fire shows need to deal with homelessness

The recent 10-acre fire in the Midtown region of the Campbell Creek greenbelt should serve as a wake-up call to Anchorage and our entire state that we all must do more to address the growing homelessness in our community.

Investigators say the fire started in a camp used by the homeless in the undeveloped area between Lake Otis Parkway and Tudor Road.

Thanks to quick professionalism by the Anchorage Fire Department and firefighters of the State Division of Forestry, the rapidly growing blaze was contained within a few hours. But it put a justifiable scare into nearby residents as the fire roared to within 500 yards of buildings.

Police, fire officials and residents have long feared exactly this situation, as the number of down-and-out Alaskans seeking refuge in this area has grown.

Police repeatedly respond to calls in the area, from arson to public drunkenness. And scores of volunteers have hauled thousands of pounds of trash and the remnants of camps out of the remote woods.

The sad fact is that Alaska -- and especially Anchorage -- has a serious problem with the homeless that we must address. According to the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., Anchorage has about 2,200 homeless at any given time. Tragically, nearly half of these are families with children.

Those numbers are expected to grow as economic conditions, especially exorbitant energy costs, worsen in rural villages.

City, state and nonprofit agencies continue working to reduce homelessness and its causes, but our efforts are inadequate. The Ten-Year Plan on Homelessness we convened in 2004 projected the need for 500 new housing units by 2015, but since then only about 100 new units have been built.

Renting a one-bedroom apartment in Anchorage today requires the occupant to earn an average of $14.44 an hour, while Alaska's minimum wage is just $7.15 an hour.

The causes of homelessness are many, and we know that not all homeless people are chronic alcoholics. To reduce serious public health problems like last week's fire, we must do more in the following areas:

• Provide more affordable housing. Despite support from the Palin administration, this year's Legislature approved only $1 million of a $10 million proposal by the Alaska Housing Trust. One state legislator refused to support it, claiming the program would be used for "50-inch TVs and a Lexus in the driveway."

• Better alcoholism treatment. Reduced state funding has cut alcohol treatment programs in Anchorage, including the closure of the Salvation Army's Clithroe Center detoxification unit.

An innovative $783,000 pilot project advanced by Sen. Johnny Ellis for involuntary detox and treatment was approved by the Legislature. It will add 10 detox and treatment beds.

• Crack down on public intoxication. This summer, the police department, Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau and Downtown Partnership combined efforts for more law enforcement presence, which noticeably reduced public inebriates in the downtown area.

• Support volunteer clean-ups. The Anchorage Responsible Beverage Retailers Association, led by local businessman Ed O'Neill, does great work cleaning up homeless camps and cutting off alcohol sales to those who abuse it.

Just last week, Mayor Mark Begich met with ARBRA, and we're seriously considering their request for additional city support of their efforts.

By better understanding the causes of homelessness, working together and focusing on proven programs that produce results, we can better address the problem and make our community a safer one.

Mike Abbott is the city manager of Anchorage.