If you follow the local political scene, you've likely heard about the recently proposed "Safe Sidewalks Ordinance" that would ban sitting or lying on sidewalks in the downtown area. You may be asking yourself why the Assembly did not pass it. I must say that the law as written had several shortcomings and would not have addressed the source of contention for the mayor. I hope I can adequately explain why.
Mr. Martin is a homeless man who simply wanted to voice his concerns to the mayor about the recent municipal strategy regarding the cleanup of our parks and woods. Having been denied time with the mayor, he resorted to an avenue taken up by many in this community over the years -- protesting his government. Protesting is not new; nor is the issue of homelessness. This man is not the salt of the Earth; he has flaws and I'm really not too empathetic toward the consequences of his poor judgment. But, he still has rights. I have heard complaints from constituents within every community council in my represented district about the need to do something to make our parks and trails safer.
And I support efforts to do just that. The primary concern of these constituents is that this same man, or anyone, could sit or lie on a sidewalk or trail anywhere else in Anchorage, literally unchallenged. The recently proposed law would not empower the police to do anything about their presence, which brings into question the necessity of the ordinance.
Currently, we have plenty of state and local laws that address crimes associated with utilizing and respecting public spaces: crimes like trespassing, littering, public excretion, disorderly conduct, etc. Adding a new law will not solve the problem.
What we really need is a clear strategy toward addressing the problem of homelessness in Anchorage.
A municipal task force was formed in 2009 to address the community concerns and to develop strategies. To date, only two such strategies have been adopted, and one of those applies only in extreme cold weather -- the allowance of the churches to act as emergency shelters. That task force made several other recommendations that would cost money to implement. In spite of two years of budget surplus, the mayor has failed to utilize available resources to make a positive difference.
This is reminiscent of the failures of previous administrations to take the necessary action to address the root of a community problem. In the late 1980s through 1990s, the mayors at that time prohibited the police from using the words "gang" or "drive-by" when the events that were responded to were in fact so. The budding "gang problem" was disavowed then. One mayor actually denied that Anchorage had a gang problem. Those individuals failed to lead and our police were idled by a lack of vision. At that time, it was estimated that there were 12-15 active gangs with about 150 active gang members/associates. Those numbers are now exponentially greater.
If history has shown us anything, it is that criminalizing the homeless or denying that Anchorage has a homeless problem is not the proper response. Telling someone to "clean up" or "get a job," will not address their underlying issues. The municipal government cannot and should not resolve such problems alone, but we can and must lead focused efforts that involve all community stakeholders. I call upon all in our community to assist me: nonprofit organizations, churches, our local corporate community, all Alaska Native associations and, yes, the local, state and federal governments. Most important, we must involve and listen to our citizens and especially the homeless and formerly homeless in order to really understand the issues they face.
Implementing "model programs" that have been implemented elsewhere sounds pleasing to the ear but such programs should be vetted and examined to determine if they are feasible here in our community. Let's build our own successful solutions, Anchorage. I am ready to lead such an effort and get the job done.
Paul Honeman is a member of the Anchorage Assembly representing East Anchorage. He is chairman of the Assembly's Public Safety Committee and a retired Anchorage police lieutenant.
By PAUL HONEMAN