Scott Patterson had to persuade himself that he was chasing the course record Saturday at the 35th annual Crow Pass Crossing, even though he knew that because of trail conditions, it wasn’t going to be a record day.
Except it was.
Patterson, 27, set the race record for the most victories by a man, grabbing his sixth title to claim sole possession of a record he had shared with five-time winner Michael Graham.
He finished the 22.5-mile wilderness run with wet hair, muddy legs and a time of 3 hours, 3 minutes, 39 seconds. It was his slowest time since his first victory in 2012, but it put him nine minutes ahead of runner-up Tracen Knopp.
“The course is in rough shape from the river on,” Patterson said. “It didn’t ever feel like I was finding a good rhythm.”
It was Crow Pass on steroids, largely the result of Alaska’s hot, sunny summer. Overgrown brush. Eroded trail. Overflowing creeks. Deep, fast-moving water at Eagle River.
“Not the best trail,” said Knopp, whose time of 3:12:40 put him 41 seconds ahead of third-place Adam Loomis (3:13:21). “It’s never that good, but all the heat made the plants grow and the trail was (flooded). I think everyone took some spills.”
Patterson did, and more than once. Creeks that usually have bridges didn’t, he said, because the creeks have moved. His biggest fall came when he stepped on a log while crossing a stream and did a faceplant.
Just another day on the Crow Pass Trail, said 23-year-old Lyon Kopsack, who has Crow Pass in his blood. His dad, Lance, won the race in 1998, and at age 16 he successfully petitioned race officials to gain entry in an event that generally only accepts runners 18 and older.
“This race is always challenging,” he said. “It’s important to suffer in life.”
That said, conditions were particularly challenging this year.
“I was out here the day after Mount Marathon and I knew it was going to be slower,” Kopsack said. “… The brush is high, the water is high, and it pushed the trail up higher.”
Getting his first taste of the Crow Pass Trail was 18-year-old Daniel Bausch, a recent graduate of Chugiak High who finished ninth.
Basuch will be a freshman on the track and cross-country teams at Division I Utah Valley University, which makes him a distance runner, but not an ultra-distance runner.
“I’m a miler,” he said, and until Saturday his longest race was 10 kilometers and his longest training run was 16 miles.
Bausch said he got lost four or five times, but his biggest issue came about 7 miles into the race while he was going through thick brush. The brush camouflaged a boulder, and Bausch ran right into it.
The impact knocked him off his feet, and he said he stayed on the ground for a couple of minutes, wondering if his race was over.
“I banged my knee really bad,” he said. “I had to take Ibuprofen and walk about a mile.
“… It hurt more than anything, but I finished ninth and I’m very happy about it.”
His knee was bruised and badly swollen at the finish line, but Bausch was in good spirits. He finished strong, passing five people in the final 3 miles.
By then Patterson had been finished for half an hour. A 2018 Olympic cross-country skier, Patterson used his leg strength to build an insurmountable lead on the climb up Crow Pass, which rises about 2,000 feet in the first 2 or 3 miles.
Patterson has won the race six times in the last eight years — he skipped the 2014 race, and the 2017 race was canceled — and owns four of the 10 fastest times in history, including the second fastest (2:56:13 in 2015).
Each time he comes to the race, he comes with the course record on his mind — 2:54:44, set in 2010 by Geoff Roes.
“I always come back thinking, ‘I’m going to get the record this year,’ but the trail changes,” Patterson said. “It kind of feels like the record (was set) on a different course, but I tried to convince myself I was chasing the record.”
Crow Pass Crossing
1) Scott Patterson, 3:03:39;2) Tracen Knopp, 3:12:40; 3) Adam Loomis, 3:13:21; 4) Chad Trammell, 3:15:29; 5) Lyon Kopsack, 3:16:09; 6) Erik Johnson, 3:20:00; 7) Kenneth Brewer, 3:23:21; 8) Ryan Beckett, 3:32:09; 9) Daniel Bausch, 3:33:13; 10) Brian Kirchner, 3:33:32; 11) Ben Marvin, 3:34:07; 12) Conor Deal, 3:37:18; 13) Kade Fitzgerald, 3:37:40; 14) Michael Earnhart, 3:39:54; 15) Harlow Robinson, 3:40:38; 16) Richard Lockwood, 3:41:41; 17) Christopher Kirk, 3:42:02; 18) Miles Knotek, 3:44:37; 19) Craig Taylor, 3:46:08; 20) Franklin Dekker, 3:47:27; 21) Jack Consenstein, 3:48:29; 22) Collin Atkinson, 3:50:57; 23) Ross Ring-Jarvi, 3:53:51; 24) Brett Winegar, 3:55:57; 25) Daniel Evans, 3:57:23; 26) Ben Muse, 4:01:20; 27) Joseph Nyholm, 4:03:00; 28) Troy Larson, 4:03:24; 29) Tony Slatonbarker, 4:03:44; 30) Steve Lee, 4:05:23; 31) Gorka Leal, 4:09:09; 32) Patrick Lewis, 4:09:13; 33) Gino Graziano, 4:09:15; 34) Jim McDonough, 4:09:50; 35) John Weddleton, 4:12:17; 36) Ben Sturgulewski, 4:13:58; 37) Luke Rosier, 4:13:59; 38) Josh Allely, 4:14:12; 39) Lance Kopsack, 4:14:41; 40) Seth Berntsen, 4:15:25; 41) Tim Johnson, 4:17:33; 42) Aaron Martin, 4:23:06; 43) Steven Andersen, 4:23:44; 44) Jack Ginter, 4:24:05; 45) Miles Dennis, 4:24:06; 46) William Taylor, 4:24:36; 47) Andrew Baalerud, 4:26:24; 48) Eben Sargent, 4:26:34; 49) Roan Hall, 4:27:14; 50) Garrett Evridge, 4:28:45; 51) Eric Vilce, 4:29:03; 52) Michael Herrera, 4:32:21; 53) David Rhodes, 4:35:37; 54) Eric Mortensen-Nemore, 4:35:50; 55) Nathan Smith, 4:37:03; 56) James Fess, 4:37:25; 57) Dan Virgin, 4:37:55; 58) Thomas Nenahlo, 4:38:21; 59) Scott Voorhees, 4:40:12; 60) Justin Zagorski, 4:40:25; 61) Noble Dj Gurney, 4:42:31; 62) Andy Varner, 4:42:37; 63) Kevin Knotek, 4:42:52; 64) Nathanael Ray, 4:43:36; 65) Patrick Stinson, 4:43:43; 66) Brian Boyle, 4:45:40; 67) Dan Brokaw, 4:48:07; 68) Joe Kiefer, 4:48:29; 69) Jacob Case, 4:49:21; 70) Marek Kolendo, 4:50:36; 71) Greg Stocker, 4:53:23; 72) Jacob Bera, 4:54:02; 73) Chester Gilmore, 4:56:24; 74) Jacob Lamphier, 4:57:04; 75) Keith Blanchette, 4:59:10; 76) Ryan Fisher, 4:59:21; 77) Blake Elder, 5:05:00; 78) Barry Benko, 5:05:43; 79) Braun Kopsack, 5:06:08; 80) Andrew Clarke, 5:06:38; 81) Brian Mason, 5:08:47; 82) Alec Kay, 5:10:45; 83) Clayton Beethe, 5:11:03; 84) Mario Galindo, 5:11:45; 85) John Clark, 5:12:56; 86) Scott Ahrens, 5:13:03; 87) Justin Jay, 5:15:42; 88) Andrew Noble, 5:25:17; 89) Marcus Reese, 5:26:05; 90) Randy Peterson, 5:26:55; 91) Dean Denter, 5:32:17; 92) Christopher Walker, 5:38:30; 93) Lucas Blackburn, 5:38:46; 94) Matthew Coburn, 5:39:18; 95) Michael Madsen, 5:40:07; 96) Justin Smole, 5:41:53; 97) Matthew Kampen, 5:41:55; 98) Ed Leonetti, 5:44:36; 99) Dane Crowley, 5:46:31; 100) Aaron Foye, 5:48:16; 101) David Retherford, 5:52:42; 102) Rhyss Vivian, 5:56:37; 103) Nathan Zeigler, DNF; 104) Tom Honer, DNF; 105) Zachary Goldman, DNF; 106) Kyle Kelley, DNF; 107) Aaron Mathys, DNF; 108) Jake Sickich, DNF;109) Evan R Steinhauser, DNF.
Chynna Deese, 24, and her boyfriend, 23-year-old Lucas Robertson Fowler, were found dead on the Alaska Highway in British Columbia on July 15, 2019. Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigators said they believe the two were killed. (Photo courtesy RCMP)
The “brutal” killings of a woman from Charlotte, North Carolina, and her Australian boyfriend has ignited an international murder mystery in a remote part of Canada.
Myers Park High School graduate Chynna Noelle Deese and boyfriend Lucas Robertson Fowler, of Australia, were found dead early Monday, along a highway in British Columbia, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The couple, who had been together since 2017, were just days into an extended road trip through Canada when they were shot for unknown reasons, her family told McClatchy.
Fowler is the son of Police Chief Inspector, Stephen Fowler, in the southern Australian state of New South Wales, according to ABC.net. Deese is a 2017 graduate of Appalachian State University and lived and worked in Charlotte, her family said. She graduated from Myers Park High in 2013.
Investigators believe Deese and Fowler were likely killed between 4 p.m. Sunday and 8 a.m. Monday, and have asked witnesses who may have seen the couple’s van to help “determine a timeline leading up to their deaths.”
Their bodies were found along the Alaska Highway, 12 miles south of Liard Hot Springs, a popular tourist attraction in British Columbia, a press release said. Parked nearby was Fowler’s blue minivan.
Deese’s brother, British Deese, told McClatchy the family remains in the dark about the details of what happened and is searching Canadian and Australian media outlets for any scrap of new information.
He says they’ve been led to believe the killings were “brutal” enough that an open casket won’t be allowed at his sister’s funeral. (A date for that has not been set.)
The family has read stories of an alleged serial killer that prowls the Alaska Highway, but they don’t believe a double murder fits that scenario, British Deese said.
Chynna Deese’s father, Dwayne Deese, told McClatchy it took authorities three days to identify the bodies, which tells him the deaths were violent. It also suggests all forms of identification were taken, he said.
“I don’t think it’s a serial killer. I think of someone who has been convicted of violent crimes before, someone on drugs. That fits the profile better,” Dwayne Deese said. “What worries us is that person is still on the loose and they have a head start. This is going to happen again. There needs to be some kind of a warning system in place for tourists.”
British Deese says investigators found their first clue when they discovered his sister’s passport hidden in the van, which was used to help identify the bodies.
A 1986 Chevrolet van was on the Alaska Highway where Chynna Deese, 24, and Lucas Robertson Fowler, 23, were found dead on July 15, 2019. (Photo courtesy Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)
Chynna Deese and Fowler were veteran travelers, which British Deese says adds to the mystery of how became victims on the road in Canada. The two met at a hostel in Croatia in 2017, and later traveled extensively through Europe, Central America and Asia, he said.
Fowler stayed in Charlotte with the Deese family for three months, from late 2018 to early 2019, and he was considered a member of the family, British Deese said.
He had recently moved to Canada after getting a job on a cattle ranch, Deese said.
“They were deeply in love,” British Deese said. “They met traveling and that’s just what they did - travel. He was working in Canada and they were planning an extensive road trip there for three weeks. They were going to spend a week on the ranch and the second half of the trip going to national parks in Canada.”
Their road trip was in its first few days when they were murdered, he said.
“Maybe the van over heated or broke down,” British Deese said. “Something happened on that road, some sort of conflict. We don’t know because they (Canadian authorities) are not telling us anything.”
The lady train put on a show Saturday as it rolled 22.5 miles across the Crow Pass Trail, even though its leader turned into a caboose after running off the tracks.
Christy Marvin captured her fifth straight Crow Pass Crossing victory in dramatic fashion, edging Ann Penelope Spencer by 23 seconds and Jessica Vetsch by 30 seconds.
It was the closest women’s finish in the 35-year history of the race.
In 2015 Marvin beat Holly Brooks by 27 seconds, and in 1999 Tina Boucher led a group of three runners separated by less than two minutes. But there’s never been anything as tightly contested as Saturday’s race for first place.
Or as confusing.
“I thought we were racing for second and somehow I won,” Marvin said.
That’s because for most of the race, Marvin, Spencer and Vetsch thought they were chasing Hannah Lafleur. And for more than half of the race, they were.
Lafleur’s attempt to follow her win at Mount Marathon with a win at Crow Pass was derailed when she went the wrong way in the wilderness race, held on an unmarked trail that starts near Girdwood and ends at the Eagle River Nature Center.
Lafleur was the first woman to reach the top of Crow Pass about 3 miles into the race and was the first woman to cross Eagle River, reaching the midway point of the race two minutes ahead of her pursuers.
“Then I got lost,” she said.
Around the 16-mile mark, Lafleur said, “somebody in front of me turned around and said, ‘We’re going the wrong way!’ So we turned around and ended up in some boulder field.”
The group of about six runners encountered “really stinky, swampy, belly-high black mud,” she said.
Then came the jolt of reality.
“We looked back the way we came from and could see runners across this marsh,” Lafleur said. “I thought, ‘Welp, there goes the race.’
“I took it as part of the adventure of running a race like this. It’s unmarked, it’s primitive — you get whatever the wilderness serves you.”
Meanwhile, the battle for second place between Marvin, Spencer and Vetsch became a battle for first place.
That jolt of reality came about 3 miles from the finish line courtesy of spectators along the trail, Spencer said.
“I realized we were running for first after I passed Jessica and people were yelling, ‘You’re in first! You’re in first!’
“What???” she said.
Marvin surged passed Spencer in the final mile to win in 3 hours, 39 minutes, 46 seconds. She placed 14th overall in a field of 144 runners. Spencer was next in 3:40:09, followed by Vetsch in 3:40:16. Lafleur took fourth place in 3:45:11.
“We had an awesome lady train,” said Marvin, 38, using a term coined at last year’s Crow Pass Crossing when Marvin forged an 18-minute victory but the next half-dozen women ran together for much of the race.
“We were finding the trail together, talking to each other. … It’s the most entertaining Crow Pass I’ve ever had. We had a blast.”
Marvin, who has been flirting with Nancy Pease’s 1990 course record of 3:26:20 for the last several years, lowered her expectations this year because she had knee surgery over the winter and is still cautious on downhills.
She typically owns a healthy margin over other women, so getting to run with Spencer and Vetsch made for a new experience.
“It’s easier to pace with the girls,” she said. “The guys run different sections faster and different sections slower, so it throws you off your pace.”
“And they smell so much better. These guys reek. And the sweat they leave on the bushes, it’s slimy.”
The women said that, among other things, they talked about their kids — Vetsch has four, Marvin three and Spencer has a dog named Noodle.
“I kept picturing my toddlers,” said Vetsch, 33. “My 4-year-old daughter kept me going — when we go uphill in her chariot (stroller), we always sing, ‘Don’t give up! Never give up!’ ’’
Spencer, 24, was singing a similar refrain, for different reasons. She suffered a stress fracture in her femur 18 months ago and was not able to run for eight months.
“I appreciate every minute out there,” she said.
As the three women swapped stories, Marvin said the day left her thinking of one of her favorite quotes: “The miracle isn’t that I finished but that I had the courage to start.”
“People shouldn’t let the fear of losing keep them from doing their best. Get out there and try it,” she said. “It was fun to have a group like this today, because we all inspire each other to higher levels.”
Crow Pass Crossing
1) Christy Marvin, 3:39:46; 2) Ann Spencer, 3:40:09; 3) Jessica Vetsch, 3:40:16; 4) Hannah Lafleur, 3:45:11; 5) Lauren Fritz, 3:49:09; 6) Julianne Dickerson, 3:52:53; 7) Michaela Keller-Miller, 4:02:13; 8) Katie Krehlik, 4:06:46; 9) Jenna Difolco, 4:16:56; 10) Julie Johnson, 4:17:33; 11) Sarah Freistone, 4:36:06; 12) Emily Evans, 4:36:39; 13) Carly Venzke, 4:39:33; 14) Alejandra Legate, 4:42:23; 15) Jackie Stark, 4:44:52; 16) Greer Gehler, 4:45:30; 17) Natalie Dawson, 4:53:16; 18) Mara Menahan, 4:53:17; 19) Jocelyn Kopsack, 4:58:26; 20) Milissa Lewis, 4:59:20; 21) Meredyth Richards, 5:01:19; 22) Susan Casey, 5:02:28; 23) Melanee Stiassny, 5:11:45; 24) Sara Bryan, 5:13:34; 25) Emily Funk, 5:23:06; 26) Erin Larson, 5:23:27; 27) Rachel Gernat, 5:26:45; 28) April Rezendes, 5:26:55; 29) Leah Legate, 5:37:40; 30) Gina Robinson, 5:53:26; 31) Heidi Conway, 5:53:26; 32) Michelle Humphrey, 5:54:57; 33) Clarissa Dougherty, DNF; 34) Danielle Grimaldi, DNF; 35) Lena Nazarek, DNF; 36) Nancy Long, DNS
JUNEAU — Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has spent more than $35,000 this year on an online and print advertising campaign to promote his agenda, encourage allies in the Legislature and criticize opponents, according to advertising disclosures by Facebook and figures provided by the governor’s office. Earlier this year, the governor’s office spent more than $9,000 on radio ads to encourage public testimony in step with his position on Permanent Fund dividends.
The spending, which is paid for from the accounts of the governor’s office, has outraged some lawmakers who contrast the governor’s spending with his decision to veto $444 million from the state’s operating budget, citing budget troubles. At least one of the Republican lawmakers targeted for praise from Dunleavy asked the governor’s office to take down the ad.
“He’s literally taking food and life-saving medicine away from seniors, claiming that we can’t afford it, at the same time using public money for political ads,” said Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage.
In response to questions about the advertising campaign, Dunleavy press secretary Matt Shuckerow said the ads are intended to inform Alaskans and encourage them to get involved with the state’s political process.
“These forms of communication all represent an effort to inform Alaskans on the issues of the day and how best to remain engaged on items of critical importance, including issues such as crime and public safety, the budget, the Permanent Fund Dividend, and a permanent fiscal plan for Alaska,” he wrote by email.
Lawmakers have a different view. They say the ads, which appear to support legislators aligned with the governor’s views of the budget, are unprecedented action by a sitting governor.
“Have you ever seen anything like it, Bryce?” asked Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, in a May interview with the Daily News.
“No, not anything like this at all,” replied House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, in the same interview. “(As) somebody who worked in the Capitol throughout the ’90s, and I’ve been a legislator for well over a decade — I’ve never seen an administration employ tactics like this, and especially, apparently using state funding to do it.”
Since February, the governor’s office has operated three Facebook pages that have spent a combined $30,387, according to Facebook’s advertising disclosure system:
• The page “Repeal SB 91” has spent $8,173;
• The page “Cap Government Spending” has spent $3,312;
• and “Restore the PFD” has spent $18,902.
In an ad that ran through June 24, the PFD page run by the governor’s office said, “Lawmakers need to know you support a full PFD this year. Use this tool to contact your elected official now.”
The ad linked to a legislative-contact system set up by the governor’s office. While Dunleavy has said he supports a dividend paid using the traditional formula in state law, a majority of the Alaska Legislature has voted for a lesser dividend at various points in the year. There remains no agreement on the amount of this year’s dividend.
Earlier this year, ads negatively mentioned the dividend stances of Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, and Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage. Other ads criticized legislation introduced by Wilson that would have required a future change to the Permanent Fund dividend formula in order to pay a traditional dividend this year.
A Facebook ad purchased by the office of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy praising state Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage. (Facebook)
In a series of ads published shortly before Dunleavy announced his budget vetoes, his “Cap Government Spending” Facebook page urged Alaskans to thank Rep. Sara Rasmussen, R-Anchorage; Rep. Josh Revak, R-Anchorage; and Rep. Kelly Merrick, R-Eagle River, for their stances on the state budget.
All three are members of the House Republican minority, and their support is thought to be necessary to undo the governor’s vetoes because for any such measure to pass, it would require some members of the minority to vote in favor.
“What an outrageous waste of public money,” Fields said. “Clearly there are almost zero Alaskans who support the governor’s budget, so he’s resorting to spending public money on these misleading ads.”
Shuckerow, writing on behalf of the governor’s office, said, “The Office of the Governor places a great deal of priority on scarce financial resources, particular in the face of budget deficits, but believes dollars allocated to inform Alaskans are well-spent and are in-line with other efforts and actions taken by Governor’s offices.”
Merrick said she was not aware of the ads. Revak did not respond to requests for comment through the House minority press secretary or by cellphone.
Rasmussen said, “I was told about it, and I actually messaged (Dunleavy’s) chief of staff, and I said I really appreciated their support but it didn’t make sense given the state’s financial situation.”
She said she asked the governor’s office to take down the ads, and according to Facebook, they were.
After the vetoes, the governor’s office began sending paper mailers to voters in the district represented by Revak and the district by Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage.
The mailers were first reported by Jeff Landfield of the political blog The Alaska Landmine. Images of the mailers show they urge voters to call Costello and Revak to thank them for voting for a “full PFD” and “a smaller budget” among other things.
“The printed communications represent only one small part of the Governor’s Office outreach to Alaskans. This form of communication was used in a limited capacity to measure whether or not it was an effective way to communicate with Alaskans,” Shuckerow wrote.
Costello said she was not aware of the mailers. Asked whether she believes that kind of advertising is appropriate, she said, “I’m not really able to comment on that right now.”
As the Alaska Legislature works its way through a second special session this year, here are the four major issues it is confronting in the state Capitol:
• This year’s Permanent Fund dividend has not been set. The governor and a strong minority of the Legislature favor a $3,000 dividend paid using the existing formula in state law. A majority of the Legislature has voted for a lesser amount.
• The Legislature is still debating whether to reverse Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s decision to veto $444 million from the state’s operating budget. While the Legislature has missed the deadline to directly override the vetoes, lawmakers could create a new funding bill to replace vetoed money. Doing so would require an agreement with the governor or, if the governor chooses to veto that new funding bill, support from three-quarters of the Legislature to override that veto.
• The capital budget is mostly unfunded. Earlier this year, the Alaska House failed to muster a three-quarters supermajority to spend money from the Constitutional Budget Reserve on projects in the capital budget. (The Republican House minority withheld its vote in an attempt to force approval of a $3,000 dividend.) Without a funded capital budget, the state will miss out on more than $900 million in federal grants unlocked by state spending.
• Dozens of program-specific savings accounts are being automatically drained because of the failure of the “reverse sweep" vote in the House. Again, the Republican House minority previously withheld its vote on the reverse sweep in an attempt to force approval of a $3,000 PFD. Without a completed reverse sweep, more than $2 billion in accounts will be drained into the Constitutional Budget Reserve, and more than $100 million in programs paid for by those accounts will go unfunded.
Hawaii vacation or a summer wedding in Homer: My boyfriend and I can’t stop fighting over which to skip
Dear Wayne and Wanda,
I am amid a huge fight with my boyfriend, and I need some advice. “Chad” and I are in our mid-20s and have been together a year. We’ve taken some trips around Alaska and went once to Seattle but we’ve never been on a big trip together and we have been planning a vacation to Hawaii at the end of August. Neither of us have ever been and we’ve spent lots of time planning the trip, including picking out a hotel that came highly recommended. And we’ve reserved a few things — like a waterfall tour, an ATV ride, a dinner cruise — but nothing is paid for yet, everything is refundable. The only exception are plane tickets I think, but the money would just sit in our accounts until we book something again.
The reason I’m mentioning all that is this past week, my very good friend “Anne” announced she’s getting married — in August, in Homer. The same weekend we’re supposed to be gone. It’s short notice to say the least but Anne’s fiancé is getting transferred to a new job which means they’re moving and they want to do it before they leave. Anne wants me to be a bridesmaid.
Chad does not understand why I want to cancel our trip to be in this wedding and be there for Anne. He says Anne isn’t even my best friend, and as my boyfriend, he should be my priority. He isn’t wrong. Anne is a good friend, top 10 for sure, but not my very best. Still, this is her wedding. It’s a huge deal!! And she’s about to move away, probably forever. And literally all our other friends will be there. If we miss it, I will feel like we missed out on the most important social event of the summer, and for what? A long weekend in Honolulu that we could literally do any weekend of the year?
Chad is really mad that I’m telling him we should cancel. He’s refusing. He says the trip is important to him, and so it should be important to me too — more important than a wedding. What do I do? Anne needs to know ASAP whether I can be part of her bridal party.
I remember my mid- and late-20s — and all the weddings. Wow, it felt like a different friend was getting married every week, and sometimes in the most inconvenient locations. Church weddings, destination weddings at remote tropical locations, weddings in people’s backyards, campground ceremonies, lodge nuptials — you name it! Sometimes the weddings conflicted with things I had already planned. Had I gone to every single one, it would have bankrupted me, and definitely used up all my vacation time.
I tried to use common sense to decide when to go and when to decline. It didn’t always work. One gal pal scheduled her wedding during my 10-year high school reunion. Both events were out of state. Well, even though I hadn’t hung out with her regularly since college, I chose her wedding; and then she called it off about a week before the ceremony. It was too late and too expensive for me to rebook to the reunion. I was left with a pair of official bridesmaid cowboy boots I would never wear, and a summer weekend full of regret. So, if we want to make this all about me, the end result of trying to be selfless was I got nothing.
I’m not saying always make it all about you. But sometimes you should put yourself first. If you drop plans every time a wedding pops up, especially super last-minute weddings during precious summer weekends, you will miss out on your own important things.
This sounds to me like a simple FOMO dilemma where you’re worried you’ll miss some special moment, some funny story, and basically be left out of all photographic evidence of one of the summer’s most fun parties. But think about what you’ll miss if you stay in Alaska: your first-ever real romantic vacation with your partner, in one of the country’s prettiest places, and an opportunity to signal to him that your relationship is your No. 1 priority and you’re completely and totally committed. What is there to think about here?
Sounds like everyone is hung up on either/or, but I see it as all of the above.
Technically you aren’t cancelling anything — you’re simply proposing a postponement. And you’re right — can you go on a killer Hawaii vacation any time of the year. Like, let’s see, a few weeks later in early September? You know, when kids and families are back to the good old school-year routine, which often means cheaper airfares and accommodations, quieter beaches, rugrat-free restaurants, and fewer toddler meltdowns and water works at the waterfalls. Now that sounds romantic.
To pull this off, though, you’re going to have to do a lot of legwork and damage control ASAP. Stop fighting and start searching airfares over the six weeks after the wedding, find the best one that’s the closest match to your original plan, and reserve it. Look up that cool hotel and get that reserved for the new dates, too. Then call or email to see if you can reschedule your ATV adventure, waterfall tour, and dinner cruise. If they’re available, lock them in; if not, there are literally hundreds of options for fun and frolicking in Hawaii. In fact, book a wildcard activity to surprise your boyfriend with: Diving with the sharks! Helicopter volcano tour! A big luau! Then lay it all out for him. Same (or better) vacation, at same (or better) price, only a few weeks later. Hopefully he’ll realize that you guys can do both.
Life is crazy and plans change all the time. Sure, this vacation doesn’t have to change, but if you’re savvy and sell it, you can delay things a bit without any real damage to your relationship. Your boyfriend can show a little flexibility, you both can be a part of a wedding that’s important to you and your friends, and you both can still experience what’s hopefully the first of many amazing vacations together. Good luck.
Anchorage Fire Department Haz Mat Team tested a white powder spread alongside Karluk Street between Third and Fourth avenues near Bean’s Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage on June 7, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN archive) (Bob Hallinen/)
An Anchorage jury Tuesday found the owner of an auction company guilty of spreading a hazardous chemical on the ground at a downtown Anchorage site commonly used by homeless people.
Ron Alleva looks down Karluk Street as Anchorage Fire Department Haz Mat Team responded to white powder spread near Bean’s Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter on June 7, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN archive) (Bob Hallinen/)
Ronald Alleva and Grubstake Auction Co., where he is president, were found guilty in Anchorage District Court of four misdemeanors, including reckless endangerment and misuse of a pesticide.
Alleva, 67, directed employees at the company to spread Zappit 73, a pool cleaner containing calcium hypochlorite, on the ground within a block of Bean’s Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter last June, the Alaska Department of Law said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
The soup kitchen, shelter and nearby area are among the city’s most popular gathering places for homeless people.
The chemical was spread on June 7 on a dirt strip that runs alongside a single city block, on the east side of Karluk Street between Third and Fourth avenues.
A call to Grubstake Auction on Wednesday was directed to Alleva, who could not be immediately reached for comment.
Lisa Sauder, executive director at Bean’s Cafe, said Alleva’s actions put people at serious risk of burns or other health problems.
“I’m thankful the courts realized the danger posed to people through those actions,” she said. “All these people need to be treated with respect. We have to care for our fellow man, even people who are struggling.”
Zappit 73 is a registered pesticide and is labeled as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The pollution prompted an extensive cleanup and removal of 1,400 pounds of contaminated soil from the site.
The action put people “at risk of serious physical injury including blindness and even death had the substance been ingested,” the Department of Law said. “It also polluted state lands and would likely have polluted Ship Creek if it had rained.”
Grubstake Auction is located in the area and Alleva has waged a yearslong campaign against the shelter and soup kitchen, saying the homeless who frequent the agencies and erect tents in the area desecrate the neighborhood.
Alleva had previously told a reporter that he was providing a public service, using “bleach” to clean up an area polluted with human feces, vomit and rotting food.
Alleva had pleaded “not guilty” in the case, said Carole Holley, an assistant attorney general for Alaska.
The jury found him guilty after less than three hours of deliberation, she said.
Alleva could face up to two years in jail and a $50,000 fine, Holley said. The company could face up to $1 million in fines.
Alleva is scheduled to be sentenced May 21 by Anchorage District Court Judge Leslie Dickson, Holley said.
Ron Alleva speaks during his sentencing hearing on May 21. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
An Anchorage auction company convicted of spreading a hazardous chemical on the ground last June at a downtown site commonly used by homeless people must pay a $35,000 fine, a judge said Tuesday.
Ronald Alleva, who co-founded Grubstake Auction, must also complete 40 hours of community service and pay $6,500 in cleanup and response costs, according to a sentence handed down on Tuesday by Anchorage District Court Judge Leslie Dickson.
Alleva on June 7 had directed employees at the company to spread Zappit 73, a pool cleaner containing calcium hypochlorite, on the ground within a block of Bean’s Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter last June, the state argued in the case.
Alleva is a longtime critic of the city’s homeless policy whose company owns property in the area. He has said he was trying to provide a public service, using “bleach” to clean up an area polluted by homeless people with human feces, vomit and rotting food.
The state had argued that the chemicals could have blinded people, or even killed someone if they were ingested.
An Anchorage jury last month found Alleva guilty of four misdemeanors, including reckless endangerment, pollution and misuse of a pesticide.
Ron Alleva looks at Assistant Attorney General Carole Holley as she speaks during Alleva's sentencing hearing on Tuesday. Alleva was found guilty of reckless endangerment and pollution for a 2018 incident where he spread a pesticide on the ground near Brother Francis Shelter. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
In the courtroom, Alleva described his long effort to battle the homeless problem in the area, with its break-ins and theft at his property. He said he was “sincerely remorseful” and was not trying to be cruel or vindictive. He cried as he told the judge he “won’t do that again, at least not by that procedure.”
The pollution prompted an extensive cleanup and removal of 1,400 pounds of contaminated soil from the site. One individual was sent to the hospital after his jacket was bleached, though ultimately no one appeared to have been injured, Dickson said.
Assistant attorney general Carole Holley argued that Alleva deserved a much stiffer fine and 200 hours of community service.
But Dickson said she took into account factors like Alleva’s lack of prior convictions, his past efforts to improve the area including by removing litter, and a history of charitable acts. More than 40 positive letters were submitted on his behalf.
Downtown Anchorage Assemblyman Christopher Constant speaks in support of Ron Alleva during Alleva's sentencing hearing on Tuesday. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
Chris Constant, Anchorage Assembly member for downtown Anchorage, also spoke on Alleva’s behalf, calling for leniency. Constant argued that while he made a mistake, the city and state also share in the blame for refusing to adequately address the city’s homeless problem.
Homeless people with mental health problems are often forced to that area after leaving jail, leading to conflicts with property owners and the Alleva family that owns Grubstake, Constant said.
“The failure is not the Allevas,” Constant said. “It’s all of us driving our problems there and thinking what we’ve done is good and right."
The Brother Francis Shelter near downtown Anchorage is facing drastic budget cuts. Thursday, July 11, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
A lack of funding is forcing the Brother Francis Shelter in downtown Anchorage to turn people away during the day, and its parent organization is bracing for even deeper cuts from the governor’s budget vetoes.
As of Tuesday, the shelter is closed during the day to anyone who isn’t staying there or involved in its medical respite program. The front bathrooms and medical clinic will remain open.
The shelter has been offering daytime services to the public, like laundry facilities, a computer lab and showers, for about three years. Those services were initially funded by a one-time grant from the city of about $200,000, said shelter director David Rittenberg.
“It was a relatively quiet place where people were welcome and people were accepted, and as long as people were safe, they were allowed to use the building during the day as a place of respite,” Rittenberg said.
The grant ran out a year later, but Catholic Social Services continued funding day services.
Clients wait in line for the doors to open at the Brother Francis Shelter on Thursday afternoon, July 11, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
However, staffing and utility costs of keeping the shelter open during the day have become too much, Rittenberg said — especially with a drop in public support that’s left the organization drawing from its savings.
“We attribute it, in part at least, to the economy in general,” said Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services.
The closure comes amid drastic cuts to state social service programs that amount to a $1.3 million loss in grant funding for Catholic Social Services. The Brother Francis Shelter will lose about $350,000, or 13% of its budget.
Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services, spoke about how the budget vetoes will impact the Brother Francis Shelter during the AFACT (Anchorage Faith & Action - Congregation Together) meeting "Standing with our Neighbors: Responding to the Crisis of Homelessness" at Central Lutheran Church on Sunday, July 7, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
“We are functioning and paying for our services in the short term on reserves,” Aquino said.
If that grant money doesn’t come in — and with lawmakers still in a standoff over where to meet, it seems increasingly unlikely that it will — the organization won’t be able to operate out of its reserves much longer.
That translates to about 14 staff positions being eliminated, including three shelter staff and around five case managers, Aquino and Rittenberg estimated.
It also means that, in the coming weeks, the shelter will have to reduce the number of people it can accommodate from 240 to 100.
That leaves the shelter, which normally houses people on a first-come, first-served basis, in what Aquino called the “horrible situation” of having to decide how to prioritize its clientele. The shelter’s guests, she said, belong to all kinds of vulnerable populations — elderly people, people with mental illnesses, people on the verge of getting back on their feet, and others.
“It’s going to be tough out there for people, and we aren’t going to be able to provide that leg up for people, that foothold for people, as we had before," Rittenberg said.
Despite the daytime closures, Rittenberg said, he hasn’t seen an increase in people lingering outside the shelter. He said that may change, though, come Aug. 1, when people whose benefits haven’t been paid — also because of the vetoes — can’t pay their rent.
Dunleavy budget vetoes will mean a sharp increase in people living in camps and cars, service providers say
Robert Lindell stands outside his home at Sitka Place on Thursday, July 18, 2019. "I was on the streets for 12 years, and it was a really bad time," said Lindell, who says he used to get drunk every night and spent many nights at the sleep-off center in the Anchorage Jail. He is hoping to land a job soon, and is worried about being able to keep it if he loses his housing. "I'd try hard, but it would be a lot more difficult," he said. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s vetoes to homeless services funding will increase the number of people in Anchorage living outside from between 100 and 300 to between 800 and 1,000 over the next 12 months, service providers said this week. The cuts will also dramatically reshape what homelessness in the city looks like, they said, with more children, pregnant women, elderly, sick, disabled and seriously mentally ill people on the street.
“The number of people that are unsheltered is going to grow fast over the next few months,” said Dick Mandsager, an Anchorage physician and former hospital administrator who has been working with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “It’s going to be in people’s face, there are going to be more camps, people sleeping outside and in cars.”
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said the city is scrambling to find any building that might meet the requirements for an emergency shelter. The cuts are so significant and sudden, they largely dismantle the city’s system for caring for its homeless population, he said.
“There’s a brutality to these cuts. ... It is absolutely massive, what it does. (The Dunleavy administration) are pushing the domino here,” he said. “They did it without talking to anybody or analyzing what the consequences would be.”
Homeless service providers met in recent days to come up with a response, but there isn’t enough time to prevent people from losing shelter, they said. Organizations are already laying off staff and are having tough conversations about which clients they will need to turn away, said Jasmine Boyle, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, which represents service providers.
“It is literally a five-alarm fire,” she said. “When we say the phrase ‘public health emergency,’ I cannot think of a better phrase for what we’re entering into in the next few weeks."
Aside from immediately putting hundreds of people on the street, the secondary problems caused by the cuts have not been calculated. Police, hospitals and jails will likely bear the weight, which is expensive to the public, said Mandsager, who is the former head of Providence Alaska Medical Center and the Alaska Native Medical Center. The city has worked for years to shrink those costs, and was making progress, he said. The lack of beds at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute is an additional stressor. Homeless advocates have been meeting with business and tourism organizations this week to prepare them for what’s ahead, Boyle said.
Many Dunleavy supporters have applauded the budget vetoes, arguing they are needed to downsize government and bring spending in line with revenue while preserving Permanent Fund payments to Alaskans. Others, including a number of Alaska business groups, argued the cuts were too severe and urged lawmakers to override the vetoes. A majority in the Legislature voted to do so last week, but fell short of three-fourths needed. The Legislature continues to meet in special session in Juneau.
Asked about the cuts to homelessness programs Monday, Dunleavy said that raising money to fill the gap should be done by the city. He also suggested private donors could step in. Charitable giving experts later countered that it wouldn’t be possible to raise enough to cover the shortfall, especially so quickly. Provided with some of the specific, immediate impacts of the cuts Friday, Matt Shuckerow, the governor’s spokesman, said that governor addressed the issue at a press conference Monday and offered no more specific response.
When Dunleavy vetoed $444 million from the state operating budget at the end of June, the cuts reduced total state support for homeless programs in state by 85%, from $14.1 million to $2.6 million. With state funding, organizations have been able to leverage other funding, so losing state support now means losing other support as well, Boyle said. The funding has been steady for at least a decade. Organizations were blindsided, she said.
The four line items that were vetoed are the Homeless Assistance Program, which was reduced from $8.2 million to $950,000; the Special Needs Housing Grant, which was reduced from $3.7 million to $1.7 million; the Human Services Community Matching Grant, which had been $1.4 million but was zeroed out; and the Community Initiative Matching Grant Program, which had been $861,700 but was zeroed. Anchorage organizations lost roughly $5.3 million.
Sitka Place, photographed on Thursday, July 18, 2019, provides permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals with serious mental illness. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
The organizations that receive funding from those grants include Catholic Social Services, Bean’s Cafe, RurAL CAP, Covenant House, Lutheran Social Services, Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska, Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis, Partners for Progress, Shiloh Community Housing, and Anchorage Community Mental Health, among others, Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness said.
How the city’s visible homeless population will change
Most of the city’s homeless population has been housed in various types of shelter until now. The number of homeless overall has been relatively steady for the last five years, according to federal statistics, even as other cities on the West Coast have seen an increase. The percentage of people who are not in shelters has been relatively steady, according to annual homeless counts. People living outside have been mainly single, more than half of them men, ages 25 to 64, most suffering from mental illness and addiction, according to demographic numbers.
More often than not, there has been room for those people in shelters, but they lived outside for their own reasons, homeless experts say. The city has been hyper-focused on getting that population out of camps in the city’s parks and greenbelts, and has had some success, though that effort has pushed homeless people out into public view. Over the last year, public outcry over camps and visible homelessness has grown.
But now, what the city calls “camp abatement” will end because there is nowhere for people in the camps to go, the mayor said. The immediate loss of subsidies and other supports for apartments, transitional housing units and shelter beds means single mothers, pregnant women, children, severely mentally ill people, disabled people, people with serious illnesses and people over 65 will be without shelter. Aside from limited space in churches and some beds in shelters that were not impacted by the vetoes, there is nowhere for them, Boyle said.
“Life in our community is going to look radically different,” Boyle said. “There will be very fragile young and old people who will need our compassion and our kindness.”
Organizations are still quantifying losses, but some include:
• By August, women and children, about 80 in total, will have to leave Clare House during the day. Women living at the shelter have had child care, which allows them to work, but that option will no longer exist.
• The number of people housed at Brother Francis Shelter will drop by 60%, from 240 to 100.
• More than 550 year-round slots for housing those who have been recently homeless will be eliminated in Anchorage. This includes Safe Harbor, a 50-unit transitional housing facility for homeless families operated by RurAL CAP, which will not have the staff necessary to continue to operate. There are currently 88 children living in the facility. Without a safe place to live, children risk being separated from their families and placed in state care, according to CEO Patrick Anderson. It also includes Sitka Place — a 55-unit housing facility for people who were formerly homeless who have serious mental health and physical disabilities — which will not have the staff necessary to operate.
• Housing for 150 people who have recently been released from jail or prison will cease, according to Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
• Mail service at Bean’s Cafe will end. It serves as the mailing address for 1,200 people.
• Case management services for the homeless will shrink across the board. Case managers help homeless people find and stay in housing. Catholic services alone estimated that between 120 and 300 people who are presently in housing would not be able to continue because of the loss of case managers.
Carrie Kelekolio, with five of her six children, in a studio apartment she rents with her husband at Safe Harbor, a transitional housing facility in Muldoon that will cease operations if Governor Mike Dunleavy's budget vetoes stand. From left is KJ Tuu, 9, Canaan Tuu, 4, Tina Tuu, 3, Kelekolio, Izzabelle Tuu, 1, and sleeping behind is Dallas Tuu, 1 week old. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
Tai Afe, an operation technician at Sitka Place, serves soup provided by the Downtown Soup Kitchen to resident Trish Sabon on Thursday, July 18, 2019. Sitka Place, which is operated by RurAL Cap, provides permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals with serious mental illness. "I like it here," said Sabon. "It's safe here." She is worried about where she would go if Sitka Place were to close. "The shelter is turning away people," she said. "Now we don't have that option either." Sabon pays $50 a month for her apartment. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
Galen G. Huntsman and Arianne Swihart with their three children, Azriel Huntsman, 4, Galen T. Huntsman, 3, and Aurora Huntsman, 2 months, in a studio apartment they rent at Safe Harbor in Muldoon on Thursday, July 18, 2019. The family signed a lease in late April and pay $550 per month. "Now we can start rebuilding our family," said Galen, who was granted custody of his older children in early July. Previously the family was living with Arianne's grandmother in a room smaller than their studio. The family has been following the state budget issues and is concerned for the future of their housing situation, which is supported with state money that was vetoed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. "I feel like I'm having the carpet pulled out from underneath me," said Galen. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
Will the cuts stand?
There are many unknowns about the statewide impacts, Boyle said, but there are more than 17,000 low-income families in Alaska at risk of homelessness who rely on food pantries, early childhood education and Medicaid, all of which have been cut. There are also unknowns for low-income seniors who have lost senior benefits, she said.
State Rep. Lance Pruitt, a Republican from East Anchorage, is the leader of the House minority, which has been generally aligned with Dunleavy’s priorities. A majority in the Legislature, lacking votes from the minority caucus, failed to override Dunleavy’s vetoes last week. He said that he and his colleagues in the minority are aware of the issues with homeless services.
“There is a recognition of these challenges and there is absolute concern for these people and what they’re going through,” he said.
Pruitt said the local community needs to have a conversation about how to fund homelessness programs.
“Is the state still at the place that it can support, not just the homeless, but multiple things?” he said. “If the state doesn’t have the revenue to be able to fund it but we value these items, should we be talking about it?”
Pruitt has worked on homelessness with his church, he said. Though some people may take advantage of the system, he said, the issues people on the street face are complicated and social services help. The problem with the veto override vote was that it was all or nothing, he said. As the legislators continue to negotiate, he’s hoping they may be able to find a compromise.
“In some cases we’ll probably find that some of these things might be restored,” he said. “I’m not making any guarantees.”
There has been little communication from the governor’s office since the news of the cuts, providers said. Leaders at organizations are trying to understand the logic behind them, they said. Mandsager said there is a misconception among some in the budget debate that homeless programs might enable people to continue living on the streets. Some have also suggested withdrawing government support might encourage people to change their lives and behaviors. He’s found no research to support that idea, he said.
“The consensus from study after study is that people, if housed stably, the majority work on their issues and they become more integrated in society,” he said. “Without having a home, the chances that tough love will shock people into change, it doesn’t exist, so far as I can find in the literature."
A woman sat cross-legged on concrete in Anchorage's Fairview neighborhood, lit by a streetlight. She wore dirty red sweatpants, sneakers and layers of shirts in the biting cold. Her head lolled right and left.
An ambulance and fire engine pulled up, sirens bawling. A call for help had come into dispatch: 13th and Hyder. Chest pains. Was it a heart attack?
In the early winter darkness, five firefighters approached the woman.
"How are you doing?" a paramedic asked.
The woman squinted through puffy eyelids.
"I'm drunk," she said.
Anchorage Firefighters assist a woman near 13 Avenue and Hyder Street. The intoxicated woman complained of heart rhythm irregularities and was transported to a hospital. Medic Matt Eckart said the demands on the fire department by intoxicated people can wear down firefighters. “We take them to the hospital, they release them, they go to Anchorage Safety Patrol and they just sober up to get out and go do this – drinking – again. It’s just a big cycle,” he said. Photographed on Friday, October 17, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN
That interaction began a night in which the woman cycled through an ambulance, a hospital emergency room and a van to the city sleep-off center. Each step cost the city and the health care system, but left her no better off than before.
Most of Anchorage's homeless are not alcoholics.
But a large proportion — about 20 percent, according to a "point in time" study that surveyed the city on a single night in January 2014 — exists at the confluence of chronic homelessness and addiction. The group that city officials call "chronic public inebriates" fluctuates in size, but doesn't top 400 people.
Social service agencies and police refer to a core group of 200 "top users" that represent the most prolific consumers of public services, gripped by a lifestyle of compounding health problems and increasing risk of death.
Similar versions of the interaction at 13th Avenue and Hyder Street — a drunk person, an emergency response, transportation to an emergency medical or drunk facility — happen dozens of times each day in Anchorage, according to police, firefighters, doctors and social workers.
The endless loop represents an expensive problem that has vexed Alaska's largest city for generations. Private and public agencies have poured studies and committees, plans and money on the situation. While the efforts suggest protecting the health and welfare of the most vulnerable people remains a community priority, it's hard to pinpoint what has been accomplished.
Garbage left at a vacated homeless camp in the woods along the Campbell Creek greenbelt show several liquor bottles and items of clothing. Photographed on Friday, November 7, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN
By measures of human misery and mounting costs to the public, the situation is as bad now as it ever has been, and in some ways worse.
Anchorage Safety Center, the city's emergency sleep-off shelter, had more visits in 2013 — the most recent data available — than in any year before. The most frequent visitor spent 275 nights of the year there.
Those visits came with a cost.
In 2014, the city spent a record $1.97 million on a year-long contract to run the center and Anchorage Safety Patrol, a van service exclusively devoted to transporting drunk people in public places to the sleep-off center. The center and patrol are not designed to help people get better. They're purely a humanitarian Band-Aid meant to keep people from dying in snowdrifts.
The scope of the problem is staggering, and some say it appears to be growing worse.
On some days in 2014, demand for the safety patrol to pick up public drunks outstripped demand for all other emergency services, including vehicle accidents, medical problems and fires, according to data supplied by the Anchorage Fire Department.
The busiest fire station in the city, Station 1, serves downtown and the Ship Creek area, the heart of the city. In 2014, firefighters there answered more calls to just one address — Brother Francis Shelter — than the quietest station in the city, in the Rabbit Creek neighborhood, saw in total. It is the only station that must have its staff supplemented by rotations, fire officials say, because firefighters aren't voluntarily bidding to work there. It struggles to keep a full complement of paramedics, due in large part to burnout from dealing with a population whose problems appear self-inflicted and who can be hostile to people charged with caring for them, firefighters say.
Anchorage Police officer Sally Jones posts a notice at a homeless camp in the woods near 46th Avenue and Bering Street in Anchorage. The sign notifies campers that all items at the illegal camp may be removed in 15 days. Jones says she has mixed feeling about her ability to get chronically alcoholic people off the streets. “We’re dispersing the problem. What we’re trying to do as a police department is, ‘Okay, you have a problem. You need to get assistance’,” she said. “The problem is, a lot of these people don’t want it. They just don’t want to follow the rules. They want to live for free.” Photographed on Friday, November 7, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN
Police evict an endless loop of "party campers" from tents around the city's vacant lots and forests. They say toothless laws mean there are no real penalties for street drinkers beyond fines that usually go unpaid.
"The problem is far worse than I've ever seen it," said Anchorage Police Department Lt. Gary Gilliam, who heads a special team charged, in part, with policing homeless alcoholics.
All the while, homeless drinkers continue to die. Some die outdoors and make the news, like a woman found dead in a tent in the Ship Creek area in December, or a man whose body was found under an overpass near Dimond Boulevard in November. But people who work in the field say many more die in hospital beds from acute alcoholism.
For more than two months, Alaska Dispatch News rode along as paramedics responded to "man down" calls, spent time at the sleep-off center and followed the cops as they dismantled camps. We spoke with people who were drinking in city parks and panhandling, and with some of the few who left the streets for sobriety and apartments.
Firefighters circled the woman at 13th Avenue and Hyder Street and lifted her to her feet.
Anchorage Firefighters assist a woman near 13 Avenue and Hyder Street. The intoxicated woman complained of an heart rhythm irregularities and was transported to a hospital. Medic Matt Eckart said the demands on the fire department by intoxicated people can wear down firefighters. “We take them to the hospital, they release them, they go to Anchorage Safety Patrol and they just sober up to get out and go do this – drinking – again. It’s just a big cycle,” he said. Photographed on Friday, October 17, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN
She wobbled. Something was wrong with her heart, she said: "The rhythm's not beating right."
The firefighters led her to a stretcher and loaded her into the ambulance. Over the next 45 minutes, they took her to a hospital, completed paperwork and cleaned up. During that time, the crew and ambulance were unavailable for anyone else. There are only nine ambulances on duty at any given time in the Anchorage Bowl. It doesn't take much — a bad car accident or two — for all of them to be called into service at the same time, firefighters say.
They asked questions: Had she been sick? Coughing? Did she have an ID? Take any medications?
As they fished through the woman's polka-dot purse for identification, a nearly empty plastic fifth of Monarch Vodka tumbled out. Abruptly, the woman turned belligerent.
"You think?" she sneered to every question.
"Frickin' jerk," she said to a medic trying to determine whether she had any injuries. "Trying to get my frickin' clothes off."
The medic kept asking questions. The exam showed no acute problem, aside from drunkenness.
He asked which hospital the woman used.
"Every one," she said.
The medics took her to the emergency department at Alaska Regional Hospital.
Anchorage Fire Deparment Battalion Chief Mike Crotty approaches a woman laying on the deck beneath a statue of Captain Cook in downtown Anchorage. Crotty, who supervises medics on the AFD staff, talked to a Downtown Security Ambassador to arrange for the woman o be transported by Anchorage Safety Patrol. Photographed on Saturday, November 8, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN
Privacy laws forbid longtime emergency room doctor Gil Dickie from discussing patients, but virtually every overnight shift he works includes a few people who are there solely because they are drunk. Sometimes they come in as "man down" calls. Other times patients are too drunk even for medics to determine whether a serious problem exists. To rule out serious conditions, doctors perform tests. One CT scan of the head can cost $2,230, a heart EKG $674, a drug screening $588, according to the hospital. A blood alcohol test is $295.
If the person can't pay and doesn't have insurance, the cost usually ends up going into an "uncompensated care" account, said Kjerstin Lastufka, an Alaska Regional Hospital spokeswoman. The hospital eats the loss, which ultimately translates into higher rates for paying hospital customers.
Often, all those tests show the person is simply drunk. But not always: Dickie remembers a habitually drunken man who fell off a barstool. A scan revealed massive bleeding in his brain.
"The danger is to blow these people off," he said. "They do suck up a lot of our time and resources. But what's always been my feeling is that's what the emergency room is there for. We're a safety net for a lot of society."
Dickie, like paramedics, police and the safety patrol, sees some of the same people night after night. He, like medics and cops, gets to know their names, families and stories.
While many don't need emergency care for what they came to the hospital for, almost all have a complex set of pre-existing medical conditions, exacerbated by addiction and homelessness.
Severe alcoholism can cause a host of associated ailments, ranging from liver cirrhosis to brain atrophy and seizures, Dickie said. Homelessness exposes people to trauma from assaults and falls and to cold exposure injuries such as frostbite. At least a quarter of homeless people nationally suffer from a severe form of mental illness, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
People living on the street who come drunk to the ER time and time again don't always lack a home.
Dickie thinks of one patient, a man in his 40s, brought in repeatedly with injuries from assaults or on "man down" calls.
"His mom picks him up every time," he said.
'A big cycle'
Anchorage Fire Department paramedic Adam Peterson radios an Anchorage hospital after picking up a man at the Anchorage Safety Center. The man, whose hands are in soft restraints while he is transported, said he drank two fifths of R&R whiskey as he does regularly. Photographed on Saturday, October 18, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN
Later that night, medics from Station 1 were called to the busy sleep-off center, where dangerously intoxicated people sleep inside in a long, narrow room tucked behind the jail near Ship Creek.
A man in his 30s was so drunk that staff members decided he needed to be taken to the hospital.
The man was agitated and yelling. In the ambulance, medics put him in "soft restraints": Velcro straps that held his wrists to the gurney. He tried to hit a medic riding in the back. He asked for a diaper.
Before the ambulance arrived at the emergency room, medic Adam Peterson asked the man how much he'd had to drink.
Two fifths of whiskey, he answered. Same as every day.
After he was wheeled into the hospital, firefighter Rick Erickson stayed back, cleaning the gurney, spraying disinfectant and mopping. Some shifts, every run is like this one, he said.
The number of emergency responses to Brother Francis Shelter and the adjacent Bean's Cafe, the nucleus of a homeless crowd that includes many street drinkers, illustrates the outsized impact a small population can have on a public resource.
Anchorage Safety Patrol driver Pam Garner, left, and EMT Garrett Sey, kneeling, respond to a man on the ground near Bean’s Cafe. Garner said she does occasionally get burned out at her job. “Because it’s just an everyday thing and you see the same people over and over,” she said. Photographed on Wednesday, November 19, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN
In 2014, firefighters were called to Brother Francis Shelter 848 times and Bean's Cafe 508 times.
No other addresses in the city garnered anywhere near that many calls. The closest runner-up, Stevens International Airport, had 238.
"Here's the crux of it: Uninsured, homeless, public inebriates are using 911 as their primary source of health care," said AFD deputy chief John Drozdowski.
Increasingly, some of the most frequent callers have learned how to manipulate the system to get an ambulance ride to the hospital instead of a van trip to the sleep-off shelter, using phrases like "chest pains" or "head injury."
"We take them to the hospital, they release them, they go to Anchorage Safety Patrol and they just sober up to get out and go do this again," says Matt Eckart, a medic at Station 1. "It's just a big cycle."
Rhett Paulson, a medic who was subbing at Station 1 for a shift earlier this winter, says he can see the attraction of the emergency room.
"If you go to the hospital, a lot of times there's free food. It's a much nicer bed," he said. "It's a softer bed. You're up off the floor."
Half of the calls he'd responded to that day were alcohol-related.
The medics at the station fight a daily battle against growing hard. In emergency medicine, cynicism can be dangerous: Severe intoxication and a head injury look similar. The last thing anyone wants, they said, is to miss a genuine emergency because a patient has cried wolf so many times before.
"Everyone who got into this job got into this job to help people," Paulson said. "After a while, if you run enough of those calls and it feels like you're not helping people but that you're enabling people … You have to watch yourself to make sure you're not getting a bad attitude about what you're doing, and that you're still providing high-level care to everyone."
Sometimes the paramedics feel they're in real danger.
Anchorage firefighter Rob Bowler warns a man about the consequences of violent behavior before transporting him. Firefighters say they’re familiar with the man, and have had so many confrontational encounters that they now require police presence to respond to him. The man, apparently panhandling on Dimond Boulevard complained of abdominal pain. AFD says it had transported this individual about 40 times in 2014 as of this day. Photographed on Saturday, November 8, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN
Days after the call to 13th and Hyder, an ambulance responded to Dimond Boulevard for a "man down."
Before the ambulance arrived, medics realized the man was one of their "frequent flyers," a panhandler with a history of making threats to firemen. He had been transported by ambulance more than 40 times in 2014, said Mike Crotty, the AFD Emergency Medical Services battalion chief.
The firefighters now require that the police join them before they will approach the man.
'They call it home'
The white, windowless vans of the Anchorage Safety Patrol run 24 hours a day.
Calls are unceasing: Drivers are so busy they eat on the fly during their eight-hour shifts, if at all.
Safety patrol employees work in teams.
The team always approaches "clients" the same way: With blue gloves on, an EMT examines the person to determine whether the destination should be the hospital or sleep-off. Some won't go voluntarily and must be coaxed or even carried into the back of a van.
City officials didn't see the full picture of just how often the service was being called upon until June 2013, when the safety patrol began receiving all of its calls through the city's 911 dispatch center. The change was aimed at eliminating situations in which a police patrol car, ambulance and safety patrol van would all be summoned to the same drunk person.
The change revealed the true scope of demand: In 2014, Anchorage emergency dispatchers fielded an average of 68 calls per day for a person drunk in public, compared to 86 per day for every other type of non-police emergency.
The city has run a sobering-up center and pick-up service, in one form or another, since 1989.
A melted area of frost on the decking of a viewing platform at Campbell Park shows where a man was sleeping. The Deck, as it is known, is a popular drinking spot for homeless people in the area. Photographed on Tuesday, December 9, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN
The idea is simple: Anchorage's subarctic climate means that drunk people who do not find shelter could freeze or succumb to a host of other hazards. The sleep-off center is supposed to keep them safe until they are sober enough to navigate on their own. Alaska law gives the city legal authority to pick up people deemed dangerous to themselves or others and hold them at the sleep-off shelter up to 12 hours.
On one midweek evening in early winter, a safety patrol van picked up a man sitting with his head between his knees outside the Hotel Captain Cook, flanked by unhappy-looking security guards.
Anchorage Safety Patrol staff members Pam Garner, top right, and Garrett Sey talk with security staff outside the Hotel Captain Cook before transporting a man to the Anchorage Safety Center. “The worst part is not being able to help them, and seeing that a lot of them do want to get help but they don’t want to reach out,” Garner said. Photographed on Wednesday, November 19, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN
They peeled a younger guy from the asphalt outside City Hall.
They carried an incoherent man off the sidewalk in front of Brother Francis Shelter while bystanders screamed obscenities at them.
"I've been hurt a couple times," said Britney Gilmer, a 27-year-old who has worked as a safety patrol driver for the past two years. "I've been scratched. I've been punched. I've been tackled. I think everybody knows it comes with the job."
People accuse the safety patrol of enabling drunks, Gilmer said. She sees her job as making sure people live to see another day.
"I've picked up a lady who was face-down in the dirt and she was very close to not being able to breathe," she said.
Use of the emergency center has risen dramatically.
In 2013, the safety center recorded 26,518 admissions, an increase of 17 percent from 2009.
That year, Anchorage's sleep-off center saw 20 percent more arrivals than downtown Seattle's Dutch Shisler Sobering Support Center, which runs on a similar model. The Anchorage shelter was nearly seven times busier than San Francisco's Mission Street Medical Respite and Sobering Center, where ambulances can take drunk people rather than clogging hospital emergency rooms.
The Anchorage center is a long and narrow room that smells like gym mats, infrequently washed bodies and disinfectant. People stagger in and collapse on the mats. Men and women stay in separate sections. Often, someone is yelling. Boxes of absorbent medical pads are on hand for people who urinate on themselves. A windowless, concrete cell by the entrance where violent or disruptive people are held is called "the quiet room." People who are too out of control to remain are taken next door to the jail, where they are considered "non-criminal holds."
About one in 10 people walks into the center on his or her own, like the prim-looking older woman who on one winter night strolled through the door with her ID in hand, took a breath test and lay down on a mat, wrapped in her coat.
When people sober up, a staff member measures their breath alcohol content before they are free to walk out. Just before midnight on a recent night, a half-dozen people took breath tests and gathered their belongings from lockers in preparation to leave together in a group.
As they shrugged on coats, another group staggered inside, fresh from the van. The two groups greeted each other warmly.
The most depressing, van driver Gilmer said, is when families come into sleep-off together.
"Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters," she said.
She's heard people refer to the sleep-off center as "home."
As in, "We're going home."
''It's like digging in sand''
The sprawling camp in a thicket of woods near 46th Avenue and Bering Street in Midtown included bikes, tents and, improbably, a hospital gurney.
Anchorage police officer Sally Jones was there to post a sign warning the camp's inhabitants that they had 15 days to pack up and leave, or the camp would be torn down.
For Anchorage law enforcement, policing homeless alcoholics is an exercise in frustration.
"We just chase them around in the woods," Jones said.
As with some firefighters, police on the Community Action Policing team spend their shifts on a steady stream of drunk calls — about six a day on average, according to Mark Karstetter, an officer with the CAP team.
Break up one camp, police say, and another takes its place.
"It's like digging in sand," Karstetter said.
After settling a 2011 lawsuit with the ACLU, police began clearing the majority of the hundreds of homeless camps in the city.
Howard Jensen shares socks given to him with other homeless people camped out along Karluk Street near 3rd Avenue on Wednesday, October 29, 2014. Anchorage Police say the try to prevent illegal camping in parks and wooded areas around the city in an effort to push people toward services that will help them get off the street. That has resulted in more people camped near Bean’s Cafe and the Brother Francis Shelter. Marc Lester / ADN
Today, they are in a "maintenance phase" and down to a fraction of the active camps that once existed, with perhaps 50 hardcore campers living outside during the winter, according to Jones.
Recently, police worked with a private landowner to remove brush from a sloping lot near Brother Francis Shelter on East Third Avenue that attracted partying campers.
But some of the campers moved to a much more visible location, the sidewalks at Third Avenue and Karluk Street, between the jail and the shelter. A congregation of tents and tarps has sprouted there in recent months.
Alaska is one of just a few states in which being drunk in public is not a crime and the law directs police to help, not arrest, people incapacitated by alcohol.
Police contend that with donated tents, free food at soup kitchens, a sleep-off center for cold nights and weak laws governing public drinking, being a homeless alcoholic can be a viable lifestyle.
"We make it easy for them to be chronic public inebriates," Officer Jones said. "There's no one holding their feet to the fire."
The harshest penalties available now, she says, are pouring out a person's bottle of booze and sending them to the sleep-off center.
Social services exist to help homeless alcoholics, she says. Her job is different.
"I do get this a lot, 'Where do you want me to go? I can't camp anywhere.' And the short of the answer is I don't know … I mean, who is responsible for you? That's where the tough love comes in and it's like, if you get a caseworker, do step one, step two, you will get off the streets."
Gilliam and other members of the CAP team would like to see the rules get tougher, with the "top 50" users involuntarily committed to treatment.
Later, Jones arrived at a vacant, privately-owned lot near the Moose's Tooth restaurant in Midtown. Inside a tent she found a man, a woman and empty bottles.
Anchorage Police officers Sally Jones, left, and Natasha Welch talk with campers in an empty lot on 33rd Avenue in Midtown. The campers were warned about trespassing, but Jones said they’d have until the following morning to clear out. Photographed on Friday, November 7, 2014. Marc Lester / ADN
The campers were squatting on private land. Jones told them they needed to move immediately.
The woman said the two were working with a social service agency to get off the streets.
Jones gave the couple until the following morning to leave.
But she knew it was likely she'd see them in another tent, somewhere else, again.
At 1:15 a.m., the same woman in red sweatpants that firefighters picked up at 13th and Hyder a few hours earlier sat on a bus stop bench in front of the Brother Francis Shelter. Emergency Medical Services Battalion Chief Mike Crotty was driving by. He stopped to talk to her.
Earlier, the woman said, staff at the hospital called the safety patrol to pick her up. The patrol delivered her to the sleep-off center. She was not drunk enough to warrant sleeping at the facility overnight.
She walked to Brother Francis Shelter, she said, but it was far too late to be let in for the night.
That's how she got to the bench.
She'd been heaving, and a stream of vomit led from the sidewalk in front of her to the street. She said she feared she was throwing up blood.
Crotty looked at the vomit and figured she was probably right. He offered to call for medics again, but she refused.
There was nothing left for her to do but wait for morning.
Editor’s note: These stories were produced as a project for the National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Her name was Christy Williams and she was so tiny she must have stood out: 4 feet, 6 inches tall and 84 pounds, the height and weight of an average fifth-grader.
Anchorage police found her dead in a tent at a homeless camp near Valley of the Moon Park on Nov. 6. Somebody had called to say she wasn't breathing, the police report said. There were no obvious signs of foul play.
Her body was taken to the State Medical Examiner Office for an autopsy. But 11 days later, she still hadn't been identified.
To identify a dead person, the medical examiner first relies on visual identification by family or friends, fingerprints, dental records, known scars or tattoos. If that doesn't work, DNA testing can be used. But it can take up to a year.
So on Tuesday, for the first time in five years, the State Medical Examiner office put out a bulletin with her physical description and a plea to the public: Help us identify this woman. A sketch artist drew her with full lips, heavy-lidded eyes and a long curtain of dark hair.
It turned out that lots of people recognized the woman. After the bulletin was publicized, more than 50 calls came in about her, Department of Health and Social Services spokeswoman Dawnell Smith said.
By Wednesday afternoon, the tips led the medical examiner's office to her identity, which was then confirmed by family members and medical records, Smith said.
Anchorage police released her name and age: Christy Williams, age 27. Little else is publicly known about her life and what led her to the homeless camp near Valley of the Moon Park.
Williams' case was solved and her family has been told of her death, according to police.
But not every case is. If a body remains unclaimed, the state’s Division of Public Assistance pays for the body to be buried in a local cemetery, said Smith of DHSS.
A 2-acre brush fire that burned in the heart of Anchorage's Campbell Creek Greenbelt Saturday likely began at a homeless camp in the area, fire officials said Sunday, the same day they issued a warning of growing fire danger across the city.
With hot, dry, windy weather in the forecast, fire officials warned in a statement Sunday of "increasingly dangerous fire conditions" Sunday into Monday and advised people to "use extreme caution."
Monday and Tuesday will bring gusty winds and warm temperatures to the Anchorage area, said National Weather Service meteorologist Kimberly Hoeppner.
Winds out of the southeast could gust to 20-30 mph starting Monday afternoon and increasing overnight and into Tuesday, she said. The NWS was calling for temperatures into the upper 60s on Monday.
"This weather could increase the fire behavior of an initiating wildfire, adding to the already challenging firefighting conditions" across the city, the Anchorage Fire Department statement said.
All burning in Anchorage has been suspended.
Saturday's brush fire burned about 2 acres of woods along the Campbell Creek Greenbelt near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Elmore Road. The fire was extinguished by 7 p.m. Saturday. There were no injuries or damage to buildings reported.
While an initial investigation suggests the wildfire was linked to a homeless camp, officials are still trying to determine exactly how it started, said AFD Deputy Chief Jodie Hettrick.
New research released Wednesday shows, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 5 boys receiving services from Anchorage's shelter for homeless youths, reported being victims of sex trafficking, quantifying for the first time the prevalence of the problem among an especially vulnerable group in Alaska's biggest city.
For years, state officials have said stopping sex trafficking is a priority. But it has scarcely been studied in Alaska and nationally.
Of homeless youths surveyed in 10 cities around the country by researchers from Loyola University New Orleans, Anchorage had the highest reported prevalence of trafficking. Some 28 percent of young people surveyed met the legal definition of victims, compared to 19 percent in the survey as a whole.
The study defines human trafficking as "the exploitation of a person's labor through force, fraud or coercion."
The author of the study, Loyola professor Laura Murphy, visited 10 Covenant House sites around the country in cities including Detroit, New Orleans and Louisville, Kentucky, interviewing homeless teenagers and young adults between 2014 and 2016.
On her trip to Anchorage in March 2016, Murphy interviewed 65 youths who were either staying at Covenant House or using the drop-in center. Murphy said the sample size was about average for the cities she visited.
Among the key findings in Anchorage:
* 27 percent of women interviewed were trafficked for sex and 17 percent of men.
* 43 percent of LGBTQ youths interviewed reported being trafficked for sex, in line with high national rates among the population. Some said they'd faced hiring discrimination for jobs that had pushed them into the sex market.
* 77 percent of youths trafficked for sex were homeless at the time it happened.
The research confirms a lot of what outreach workers already knew, said Josh Louwerse, youth engagement program coordinator at Covenant House. But because so much of sex trafficking happens out of sight — in rented hotel rooms and internet postings — it has been minimally studied, here and elsewhere.
The research illuminates the scope and contours of the problem, Louwerse said.
Anchorage was in part chosen as a study site because of its demographics and status as a hub city for the state, Murphy said in a phone interview Wednesday.
"We thought it might be a different kind of site," she said. "We were hoping to gather more data on Native American youth."
In Anchorage, victims told Murphy about surviving in a city far from their families in rural villages.
"A lot of them were young people very far from home," Murphy said. "They had traveled into Anchorage and couldn't go back home. Some of them also didn't want to go home."
Some had come for medical treatment, to get away from abuse or for educational or job opportunities that didn't pan out. Many reported selling sex to meet a basic need, like food, clothing or shelter.
The stories Murphy heard weren't about being trafficked by major criminal organizations.
"These are circumstantial situations — youth who get exploited by someone who sees their vulnerability," she said.
In one recent case, prosecutors told the jury Troy Williams, accused of running an Anchorage sex-trafficking ring, targeted older Alaska Native teenagers who came from rough childhoods, had addiction problems and needed money.
Past prosecutions of Anchorage sex-trafficking operations have revealed pimps and traffickers preyed on homeless youths, including picking up young people on the fringes of the old Covenant House location itself.
Less attention is paid to labor trafficking, Murphy said. In Anchorage, those cases all involved forced drug dealing or criminal activity like working as a thief for a gang, according to the research. About 18 percent of those interviewed had been trafficked for labor.
"Young people were forced to sell or deliver drugs or to engage in other illicit activities without their consent," the findings said.
Some had also been pushed into magazine sales crews, forced to work selling subscriptions door to door in a situation that verged on indentured servitude.
Trafficking is complex, said Louwerse.
Separate from the study, Covenant House staff knew of 20 young people who had been trafficked.
A check into their backgrounds found that each of them also had mental health issues, he said. In some cases, the person flies in for treatment from another town or village, is briefly hospitalized and then discharged "with nowhere to go," Louwerse said.
Josh Louwerse, an outreach case manager at Covenant House, searches for homeless youths in the Northway Mall in August 2016. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive 2016)
"At least a couple times a month we have someone leave (the Alaska Psychiatric Institute) and end up at Covenant House," Louwerse said. Some fall through the cracks between discharge and the shelter. Malls, transit centers, gas stations — they are all recruiting spots, he said.
Tackling a problem as complex as trafficking means getting to the root of the reasons homeless young people are so vulnerable to begin with, say Murphy and Louwerse: poverty, addiction, childhood trauma, mental health issues. Sometimes all at once, Louwerse said. But the research is a starting point.
“It tells people this is real, this is not made up,” he said. “This is a problem.”
City aims services at a place that’s already an unofficial refuge for the homeless -- the Loussac Library
The Loussac Library will soon have a counselor to assist vulnerable patrons. Photographed in Anchorage on June 14, 2016. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
When you live on the street, a public library can be a sanctuary.
Walk into the Loussac Library in Midtown Anchorage on a cold day and you can see just how true it is, said adult services librarian Sarah Preskitt. The homeless do the same things everybody else does at the library: Read books and newspapers. Go online. Charge cellphones.
All that is fine, Preskitt says.
But the presence of many vulnerable people who may suffer from health problems, addictions and mental illness can tax staff who are trained in library science, not counseling or social work.
On any given day, Preskitt estimates that between 30 to 50 people who seem to be homeless or living on the margins spend time there. More when the weather is bitter cold or it's pouring rain.
Now the city is trying a cutting-edge approach to the issue: For the first time, they will station a social worker inside the library to help some of the Anchorage's most vulnerable in a place they're already frequenting.
"The answer is not to say, you don't meet our standard of what a library patron is," Preskitt said. "Our mission is to provide resources to the community. It's important to me to do that. This is a win-win for everybody."
Librarian George Felder has been working at the Loussac since 2004. Homeless people have always spent time there, he said. Some people arrive as soon as the library opens and leave when it closes. But these days, people seem more desperate.
"They are in more disrepair than previously," he said. "More who are really down and out."
The library has a security staff to help librarians enforce rules against eating, sleeping, bathing or attempting to do laundry in restroom sinks. They occasionally field complaints from patrons who say they are being made uncomfortable by other people in the library. And they have to kick out people who are using drugs or alcohol, or who are drunk or high.
Patrons are generally well-behaved and left alone, Felder said. But sometimes people in crisis require a call to police.
Between the beginning of 2015 until mid-June, police responded to the Loussac Library at 3600 Denali Street more than 200 times, according to data from the Anchorage Police Department. Most of those calls were for complaints that turned out to be nothing. But there were incidents like one in which a man said he wanted to be killed "by a beam and judged by God," according to police reports. And one in October, where a "heavily intoxicated man" trying to fight had to be taken away by police.
Preskitt says the solution is to offer help, not to profile or restrict people using a public facility.
Enter Rebecca Barker, who is earning a master's degree in social work at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Starting in August or September, she will be responsible for connecting vulnerable people who frequent the library to services that can improve their quality of life and get them off the streets, using an approach known as "trauma informed care."
Barker worked on a major study of Karluk Manor while earning an anthropology undergraduate degree. The experience of talking with people who had spent years or decades homeless led her toward a graduate degree in social work, she said.
The plan is for Barker to rove the floor rather than sit in a tucked-away office.
The pilot program shouldn't cost the city anything initially, said Melinda Freemon, the director of Health and Human Services for the municipality. Barker will intern as part of the requirements of her master's degree. There are also plans to move an outreach worker from the city's services for the disabled and aging into the library, in an effort to better connect with clients in a place where they may already be spending time. If the pilot program, expected to run from August until April, is a success, the city might pursue a grant to continue it in the future, Freemon said.
Loussac librarians say the last thing they want to do is deter people who are on the margins already from coming to the library.
Even if someone sleeps on cardboard, they should still have a place they can go to listen to symphonic music and read Shakespeare if they want to, Felder said.
“Whatever your status is, there’s a place you can come and continue dreaming and doing those things that make you feel human,” he said.
People sleep in the men's dorm at Brother Francis Shelter on Dec. 11, 2018. Catholic Social Services executive director Lisa Aquino says that Gov. Mike Dunleavy's cuts to funding for homelessness services will force Brother Francis Shelter to reduce its capacity from 240 people to 100, leaving more people out on the street. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / ADN/)
Among the casualties of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s line-item budget vetoes Friday is most of the state’s contribution to homeless services, which will drastically reduce capacity at shelters, shrink programs for the hungry and eliminate several kinds of funding for low-income and supported housing, homeless advocates said.
Anchorage, which has the largest homeless population, loses the most.
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, joined by officials from nonprofits that serve the homeless and low-income Alaskans, described the impacts of the cuts as “dire and horrific” at a press conference Saturday afternoon outside City Hall.
“More people will wind up in homelessness as a result of these vetoes,” Berkowitz said, “people can die as a result of these vetoes.”
Ethan Berkowitz speaks with a reporter after a press conference regarding the governor's budget vetoes, Saturday, June 29, 2019. (Anne Raup / ADN)
State support for homelessness services was reduced from $13.7 million to $2.6 million, said Jasmine Khan, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. There were also large reductions to Medicaid and programs that support seniors, the blind and the disabled, which will likely add to those needing help with housing and food. In Anchorage, the cuts mean reducing capacity at five out of its seven homeless shelters, she said.
“These cuts are targeting domestic violence victims, homeless children, low-income seniors, and other marginalized populations," Brian Wilson, executive director of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, wrote Friday. “This action decimates an already greatly underfunded homeless service delivery system.”
Berkowitz said that to his knowledge, Dunleavy had not reached out to the organizations before the cuts.
“People should make policy decisions based on good information, addressing the people who are impacted, understanding what the experts have to say about the subject matter," Berkowitz said. “That was not the case with these cuts.”
The cuts are particularly discouraging as Anchorage has been making some modest progress toward moving people out of homeless encampments, which has been a priority for community members and businesses, Khan said. Reducing shelter beds in the city erases that progress and will make encampments and other kinds of visible homelessness worse, she said.
“Residents of Anchorage are already concerned about public health and safety. Slashing critical safety-net services will jeopardize recent efforts and increase unauthorized camping,” Khan said.
When there are fewer homeless services and fewer shelter beds, it shifts the burden of caring for the homeless — from social service providers to law enforcement, jails and emergency rooms, which is ultimately more expensive to the public, she said.
Lisa Aquino, left, speaks at a press conference, Saturday, June 29, 2019. Alison Kear is at right. Aquino is the executive director of Catholic Social Services and Kear is the executive director of the Covenant House. (Anne Raup / ADN)
Lisa Aquino, head of Catholic Social Services, said her organization lost funding for Brother Francis Shelter, Clare House and its housing service program, which helps get people who are homeless into permanent housing. Clare House, a shelter for women and children, may have to close during the day, she said.
“That means that, like, babies and little kids and moms don’t have a place to stay,” she said.
Between the reductions to Catholic Social Services’ programs and capacity alone, Aquino said, she expected homelessness in Anchorage to increase by 48% in the next year.
“You’re going to see it immediately,” she said.
Brother Francis Shelter will have to reduce its capacity from 240 to 100 people, she said, which will undoubtedly increase the number of people on Anchorage streets.
“That will impact camp abatement, it will impact all the frustrated people in Midtown and downtown, and the business owners,” she said. “Most important it’s going to impact all the folks that don’t have a safe place to sleep.”
Aquino said she was unsure who will get priority for the shelter beds.
“Do you choose that frail older woman who uses a walker and doesn’t have anywhere else to go, or do you choose that young person who just got a job and just needs a place to stay for one more month?" she said. "Who do I turn out?”
Reporter Tegan Hanlon contributed.
Sara Ondola-Carter, her husband Tony Carter, and a friend pass around a can of high-alcohol beer at an intersection in Midtown Anchorage Tuesday morning, June 25, 2019. The couple said they met outside of Fred Meyer and had been married about a year. "We have each other," he said, referring to his friends and family on the street. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
Midtown Anchorage businesses say homelessness, panhandling and public drinking have reached a crisis point, and the district’s community council is poised to send a strongly worded resolution to the city asking for more aggressive enforcement of anti-panhandling and nuisance laws.
Albert Circosta, treasurer and secretary of the community council, sent out a copy of the resolution with an email describing panhandling and “drinking parties” in the public right of way. The body will consider it Wednesday.
“No matter how much we coordinate or add dollars for security contracts, it remains very difficult to manage this situation next to the ongoing public inebriation parties,” he said.
The measure also comes in response to a letter that Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, and eight other legislators sent to the city earlier this month, asking for more aggressive clearing of homeless camps in public parks, said Ric Davidge, vice president of the council. Davidge, who wrote the resolution, and wife Connie Yoshimura, a real estate broker who owns Dwell Realty, have offices in Midtown, he said. Businesses there have had enough, he said.
“What’s happened, every one of our meetings without exception, some business person has come to complain with what is happening to their business,” Davidge said.
Ric Davidge, vice president of the Midtown Community Council, photographed on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Bill Roth / ADN archive) (Alaska Dispatch News/)
The city has stepped up efforts to clear the parks and to get homeless people into the shelter system and housing over the last few years, reducing the total number of homeless in the city between 2017 and 2018. But, police and homeless advocates say, recent camp abatements may have made some homeless who were living in the woods more transient and more visible, pushing them out of the wooded areas in the Chester Creek greenbelt into adjacent Midtown.
Public outcry about camps and homelessness across Anchorage has become more intense, especially in recent weeks.
The Midtown Community Council district is bordered by Arctic Boulevard to the west, Fireweed Lane to the north, the Seward Highway to the east and International Airport Road to the south. The area is mainly commercial with some residential pockets. The council is made up mostly of business owners. Many businesses are having problems with loitering in the municipal right-of-way, panhandling, shoplifting, drinking and menacing behavior like pounding on windows, Davidge said. Some of their employees have been assaulted when they tried to intervene with shoplifting.
“We’ve seen a slow, steady increase of people illegally soliciting,” he said.
The resolution calls homelessness a “community crisis” and connects it generally with the spread of infectious diseases, including “the bubonic plague, typhus, tuberculosis, hepatitis A and C,” as well as crime, litter, public defecation and open drug use. It knocks the organizations charged with dealing with the homeless problem as being ineffective, “a group now generally referred to as the ‘homeless industrial complex,'” and says they waste public money. It also says police are turning a blind eye to panhandling.
“The Municipality has, we have been informed, directed the Anchorage Police Department not to fully enforce certain laws,” it says.
The resolution also pushes for a tent city to house homeless people, tickets to send willing homeless people back to villages or Outside, and job training in rural Alaska “so that young remote residents can learn how to survive in a western 9-5 work culture.”
Lt. Jack Carson, who oversees community policing with the Anchorage Police Department, took issue with the resolution’s assertion that the department isn’t enforcing panhandling rules. The department has focused on panhandling, he said. But it is not illegal to sit in the municipal right-of-way in Midtown with a sign if you’re not blocking the sidewalk, he said. It is illegal to take money from cars and to give money out a car window, he said.
“The money is what’s bringing them to that corner,” he said.
Police can cite both panhandlers who take money and drivers who give money or other things like food or hygiene supplies out their windows, he said. In the downtown business district police may write a panhandling citation, he said, which is a civil, not criminal, infraction. Public drinking may also net a $100 fine. The problem is that homeless people generally have no money to pay, he said. Fines have not shown to change behavior in the homeless population, he said. Outreach has been, he said.
“Everybody is wanting the APD to arrest our way out of this, but it needs to be a change in a behavior by everybody,” he said.
If someone wants to give money, he recommended giving to nonprofit charities that help the homeless. The department is also focused on shoplifting, he said, with a number of recent retail stings. The majority of those arrested are not homeless, he said. He stressed that people in Midtown should call the police rather than intervening to stop criminal activity.
“What we’re seeing a lot more is people trying to take the law in their own hands and confronting these people,” he said. “We are seeing a lot more aggressive public out there. ... That’s more of the job of the Anchorage Police Department.”
Michelle Tugatuk and Gene Smallwood sit on the grass next to C Street in Midtown Anchorage Tuesday morning, June 25, 2019. The pair, who are experiencing homelessness, had recently visited a friend who was staying at the Merrill Field Inn. The visit gave them a chance to shower and watch television. "It was wonderful," Gene said. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
Gene Smallwood, 43, sat with a group of seven on the southwest corner of West 36th Avenue and C Street on Tuesday morning. Smallwood has lived outside in Midtown for 15 years, he said. He avoids the homeless shelters because of the bugs and the noise, he said. He’d rather listen to the traffic.
“Scabies, lice, bed bugs,” he said.
JR Voyles, 54, sat next to him. He’s been homeless in Midtown 10 years, he said. Both men attended Mount Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school in Sitka attended mostly by students from Alaska Native villages, although a decade apart. After school, Voyles said, he worked construction but is “too beat up” to work anymore. He has been sleeping mostly in Midtown, he said. He doesn’t have a tent. He said he spends his nights near Outback Steakhouse or Credit Union 1.
“They’ve got a good overhang,” he said.
Others in the group recognized that members of the community saw them as a nuisance. As recently as two weeks ago, the group said they’d been asked to leave buildings they had once felt welcome around. Voyles sipped a can of Steel Reserve, getting a little emotional.
“No matter what happens in this lifetime, be happy, keep a sense of humor. Keep your friends next to you. You’ve got to love each other,” he said. “Fighting becomes the end of debate.”
Reporter Jeff Parrott contributed to this story.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Mount Edgecumbe High School is a school for Alaska Native students. Mount Edgecumbe began as an Alaska Native boarding school, but now accepts students from all backgrounds.
JR Voyles, left, drinks from a can of high-alcohol beer at an intersection in Midtown Anchorage Tuesday morning, June 25, 2019. He says that he's "too beat up to work anymore." (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
Anchorage is doing more than ever to clear homeless camps. But to many, the problem has never been worse.
From left, APD officers Ruth Adolf, Damon Jackson and Natasha Welch look for homeless camps Thursday, June 13, 2019 in the Chester Creek greenbelt. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
On a recent weekday afternoon, a couple of Anchorage police officers and a city worker tasked with helping homeless people get off the street set off along a trail into the woods near Valley of the Moon Park.
The route threads through what has been a notorious warren of homeless camps along the Chester Creek greenbelt. On this day the woods were clear and quiet. Officer Natasha Welch has been visiting this spot for 12 years, carrying out the city’s ever-evolving homeless camp clearing process. It has never been as effective as it is now, she said.
“It’s a good feeling, like something is actually getting done,” she said.
Over the last few years, the city has stepped up and refined the process for clearing out homeless camps. There is some indication its efforts are working. Last summer, the city counted the total homeless population at 1,064 — 240 fewer than the year before. They also cleared 369 camps, 237 more than in the summer of 2017. This year, so far, the city has removed 138 structures in the woods and contacted 180 campers.
There are several projects underway that would expand housing options for campers. The number of homeless people in the state has also remained relatively flat for the last five years, even as it has risen in most West Coast cities, according to federal statistics.
Even so, public outcry about homelessness and encampments has only gotten louder. Public reports about camps increased 12% from 2017 to 2018, and public anger over the camps appears to have escalated in recent weeks. There have been letters to the editor, editorials, social media rants, Facebook groups, community coalitions formed, and news stories produced. At an assembly work session on Wednesday, much of the public testimony was from angry residents and business owners, frustrated with a lack of progress, feeling their concerns are unheard and blaming the city.
Anchorage Assembly committee meeting on homelessness at City Hall on Wednesday. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
“The primary issue the public is torqued about is the mayor is missing in action," said Stephanie Rhoades, a former Superior Court judge who has been working with a coalition of residents frustrated with the encampments, in an interview the day before the public meeting. “We don’t have the municipality coming forward, saying ‘We hear you, we think your rights are as important as those in the camps.’”
Nancy Burke, Housing and Homeless Services Coordinator on Mayor Ethan Berkowitz's staff, speaks during the Anchorage Assembly committee meeting on Wednesday. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
Nancy Burke, the city’s homeless coordinator, said there is a gap between what the city sees as clear progress and what the public knows about the city’s efforts. Presenting plans and outcomes in public meetings has not been an effective way to get the message out, she said.
“Trying to find that communication channel is really hard. We usually just get shouted down,” she said.
The city has been working on homelessness for at least 20 years, she said. Changes take time and it’s hard to get everyone with a stake in the issue on the same page and willing to invest in the projects that are happening, she said.
The homelessness problem has grown more complex in recent years with an increase in opiate drug addiction and fewer resources than ever for those with mental illness, in part because of instability at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, homeless advocates say. Campers are younger, and more likely to have addictions to feed, according to police. The most proven route to get people off the streets, used in cities across the country, is to provide more affordable housing, and housing with supports for people with mental illness and other problems, Burke said. The city does not have enough of that, though several projects are planned.
Tony Adares lies in his tent Thursday, June 13, 2019 in the Chester Creek Greenbelt. Adares says he uses meth about three times a week. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
As camps are cleared, campers move to other areas and tend to be more in the public eye, fueling a perception that there are more homeless, even as overall numbers stay the same. Campers are also moving to the shelter, putting more pressure on a system that is already stressed. Funding is also a significant hurdle. Revenue from a proposed alcohol tax would have been used for treatment, housing, shelter beds and clearing camps. The tax, however, failed.
Burke wants to better channel community interest toward common goals.
“If we get all of us pulling the same direction at the end of this, there’s nothing that could stop us. Except money, I guess — money could stop us,” she said.
How does the city clear a homeless camp? Is it working?
The new process for clearing camps works like this: When someone reports a camp, it is plotted on a map. After that, a municipal employee will check the camp to see if someone is living there. Rather than being cleared individually, camps are cleared in wide geographic zones. Police post that the zone will be abated, and then clear out campers 10 days later. After that, a work crew cleans up the trash.
Municipal Parks & Recreation maintenance workers filled garbage bags full of debris that they removed from an abandoned homeless camp nestled between the Hillcrest Drive offramp and Minnesota Drive on Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
Municipal Parks & Recreation maintenance workers Michael Wayne Connor, Jr., left, and Kyle Leddy remove debris from an abandoned homeless camp nestled between the Hillcrest Drive offramp and Minnesota Drive on Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
“That is huge from our perspective,” said Welch, the police officer.
One of the more effective parts of the system, she said, are city workers like Tanya Vandenbos, with the city’s Mobile Intervention Team, who note who the homeless campers are and help connect them with services such as help for mental health or addiction problems. Vandenbos networks with 15 to 20 community organizations to come up with plans for individual campers, she said. That outreach process keeps some of them from returning to the woods, Welch said.
“It’s changed dramatically because of the help we can provide to people,” Welch said.
The best outcome in the process would be that some campers would move into housing, but at this point it’s difficult to know how much that has happened. Numbers show more campers are moving into the shelter system, Burke said. The city is working on several projects that expand permanent housing options.
Though anecdotally the new system is successful, there isn’t a way — yet — to gather data on how many people are making it from the camps to housing and how many are returning to the woods, said Jasmine Khan, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. The group represents individuals and organizations with a stake in the issue. There is hope the city might expand that program to include a more robust outreach effort and share data differently to help give a better sense of who is out there and what their needs are. There are a lot of organizations that can help, but the logistics are complicated.
“We need more data about the efficacy of abatement,” she said.
Who is in the woods? The data is scarce, the anecdotes plentiful.
Zack Fields, a state lawmaker who lives downtown, wrote a letter on behalf of eight legislators a few weeks ago, saying the city should do more to clear out camps, root out criminal activity and dispose of waste.
CAP officers Damon Jackson, left, and Natasha Welch make contact with Matthew Strametz Thursday, June 13, 2019 at his camp in the Chester Creek Greenbelt. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
CAP officer Natasha Welch makes contact with Kevin Burkett outside the Anchorage Football Stadium Thursday, June 13, 2019. Burkett says he is homeless and addicted to heroin. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
CIT coordinator Ruth Adolf, left, and Tonya Vandenbos, a member of the city's Mobile Intervention Team (MIT), talk with Tony Adares Thursday, June 13, 2019 at his camp in the Chester Creek Greenbelt. The MIT aims to connect people experiencing homelessness with services and housing. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
The way he sees it, there are some homeless people living in the camps who absolutely need help getting into housing, but there are also criminals out there chopping up bikes and moving stolen items. It’s the criminals the city needs to be doing a better job with, he said.
“I have certainly observed and my neighbors have observed an increase in encampments that seem to be used by criminals,” he said.
He doesn’t have crime data to point to, but he lived near a camp where he witnessed what appeared to be people moving stolen materials, he said. He was threatened by a man with a machete when he entered that camp, he said. Another time, he walked through a camp near Valley of the Moon and found lots of bicycle parts covered with spray paint. His constituents have similar stories, he said.
Welch, Rhoades and Burke have observed that the average age of campers has dropped over time. Rhoades and Burke also said the camps have become larger, concentrating lots of campers in one place. Rhoades described a camp with a solar panel, sophisticated in-tent wood stove and Keurig coffeemaker.
“The state of the homeless camps, they are worse, they are bigger, and people are bringing more and more things out,” Burke said.
There is also, at least anecdotally, more drug use in the camps than there used to be.
“Back in the day, it was bottles everywhere,” Welch said.
Anchorage Assembly members at Wednesday’s meeting described numerous complaints about large encampments, discarded needles, trash and human waste.
Are campers causing more crime?
Anchorage police don’t track whether crimes are linked, geographically, to homeless camps. But Lt. Jack Carson, who oversees Welch’s unit as well as the crime analysis and drug units, said there isn’t evidence to indicate that crime related to the homeless camps has increased.
“Is there criminal activity in these camps? Yes. These are people fighting to survive with nothing. They have to acquire the essentials for life and they don’t have jobs. They are doing that by scavenging, begging, borrowing, stealing,” he said.
Items police find in camps they suspect are stolen tend to involve heating, food, shelter, and drugs and alcohol, he said. There are also things related to transportation: bicycles, strollers, bike trailers. He stressed the people who have their bikes stolen should make a report with a serial number.
“We run pretty much everything with serial numbers, we rarely get a hit,” he said. “It’s hard to prove they are stolen. When we do get a hit, a lot of times the case numbers are so old, it’s hard to link back.”
Officers Damon Jackson, left, and Natasha Welch look at a map showing the location of homeless camps Thursday, June 13, 2019 in the Chester Creek Greenbelt. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
Campers are most likely to be involved in smaller crimes, like stealing a propane tank off a deck, he said. The department has not seen an increase in them being involved in serious crimes such as robberies. More serious crimes require a vehicle. Campers tend not to have that kind of transportation, he said.
“I think people are upset and tired of all the crime going on in Alaska. We have had an increase in some crimes. They are looking for people and places to blame. The homeless community is an easy target,” he said. “They are getting a lot of blame for stolen stuff that I don’t believe is attributed to them.”
Why do there seem to be more homeless people?
There are a number of factors that have made the homeless population more visible, people working with the homeless say. Many wooded areas have been cleared of underbrush, making it harder to hide tents. The camps are also larger.
As the city clears camps in the woods, Carson said, the homeless are becoming more visible on the streets, and that, along with the influence of social media platforms like Nextdoor, may be fueling a public perception that the problem is worse, he said. Recently, the city cleared out camps along the Chester Creek greenbelt. After that, groups of people milling on Midtown streets grew, according to police officers, campers and others familiar with the situation.
A man sits outside his tent in a camp Thursday, June 13, 2019 in the Chester Creek Greenbelt. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
“We’re abating more camps, and it’s going to be pushing them out in the public eye,” Carson said. “They are going to be on street corners instead of tucked away in the woods.”
It’s part of a process, he said. The abatements make camping less comfortable. Once people are visible, it’s easier to provide outreach. Outreach can get them off the street. In Carson’s opinion, the city has the most effective system for clearing camps and getting campers off the street so far.
What percentage of campers are mentally ill or dealing with addiction?
Back in the greenbelt, Welch and the group came upon a tent in the woods behind Sullivan Arena. Jeremy Chapas, 44, came out when Welch called to him. He’s been homeless for two years, he said. Something happened in his life then, but he didn’t want to talk about it, he said.
“I stopped working and paying bills,” he said.
He’s a veteran, he said, having served in the Navy. The hardest part of living in the camps is not having regular access to a shower, he said. He wasn’t sure what it would take to get him back into housing.
“I just don’t care,” he said, looking down at the ground in the entryway of his tent. “I could get hit by a truck, I don’t care.”
Vandenbos, the outreach worker, had been in contact with Chapas previously. There are a number of resources for veterans living on the street, she said. But for some people, it can take a number of contacts before they are ready to receive help.
The most common factor that makes it difficult to get people from the camps into housing is mental illness, she said. Oftentimes it comes paired with addiction. Of the 180 people contacted this year in camps, 89% were dealing with addiction or mental illness, according the Burke.
"When people think about homeless, they think of the alcohol and the drugs and the criminal activity,” Vandenbos said. “What they don’t see is the disheveled mentally ill.”
Because of problems at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, Anchorage does not have enough beds to accommodate the number of people in mental health crises, Burke said. Anchorage’s psychiatric emergency rooms are overflowing. Mentally ill people have been housed at the Anchorage jail. The city tried to fund more addiction treatment beds, which are also lacking, with revenue from the proposed alcohol tax that failed in November.
On the way back to their cars, the officers and Vandenbos encountered Kevin Burkett, who was lying in the grass with his bike and backpack. Burkett, 37, said he was going through heroin withdrawal. He’s a father of two, he said. He grew up in Grayling, a village on the Yukon River, and used to work construction. He’d been using heroin for five years and was lucky, he said, to be alive. He didn’t know where he’d sleep that night.
Kevin Burkett sits on the grass outside the Anchorage Football Stadium Thursday, June 13, 2019. Burkett says he is homeless and addicted to heroin. (Loren Holmes / ADN) (Loren Holmes / Anchorage Daily News/)
“We’re good people, man, we just got addiction, you know?” he said. “I’m gonna beat this drug and get off the street. ... I’m on my way in. In my head, I’m on my way.”
‘I am really sad at what my city has become’
John West is one of the administrators of a Facebook group called Anchorage Looks Like S***, which earlier this week had 47 members and is focused on Anchorage’s visible homeless problem. His frustrations begin at work, he said. He works near Brother Francis Shelter on East Third Avenue, where there are homeless people and homeless camps everywhere, he said. Dealing with break-ins and inebriated people is just relentless, he said.
Then there’s his neighborhood near the Campbell Creek greenbelt. He sees camps there when he walks his dog. His neighbors have had things stolen. Gas cans, bikes. Everyone is installing security cameras. It doesn’t feel like it used to, he said. There are also more panhandlers in places where they didn’t used to be, he said.
“The way it feels to me, I am really sad at what my city has become,” he said.
He was unsure what the city was doing to deal with campers, panhandlers and the homeless people he sees at work. The problem definitely seems worse than it used to, he said.
Has homelessness affected your business or neighborhood? Are you homeless? Do you have a relative on the street? We want to hear from you. Email email@example.com.
The forget-me-not is an official symbol of the State of Alaska. It is tiny, but prolific. There are many meanings associated with the delicate blue blossom. Those meanings seem especially poignant at this moment. Let me share four of those meanings with you now.
Meaning One: True and undying love. Alaska has provided beauty, comfort, and prosperity for generations. For some it is time immemorial. For others it is a few generations or perhaps a few years. Let me ask you this: Is your love for Alaska larger than your need for personal gain – whether financial, political, or otherwise? In these times of relative scarcity, have we forgotten how much Alaska has given us? Can we rise above our differences to find a path of true and undying love for the place that has given us so much?
Meaning Two: A connection that lasts through time. Many people, past and present, have no intention of remaining in Alaska for their entire lives. After leaving, most say that their time in Alaska left an indelible mark on their lives –unforgettable places, exceptional experiences, larger than life characters, and cherished memories. Whether your intention is to stay forever or just a while more, is your connection with Alaska strong enough to transcend time? Can we look beyond the difficulties of today and cling to the connections that bind us together as Alaskans?
Meaning Three: Fidelity and loyalty in a relationship, despite separation or other challenges. Alaska is facing tough times, but these are not the most challenging times we’ve ever faced. We’ve seen and survived far worse. This current challenge is one of our own making – not a natural disaster or negligence by Outsiders – this is us. This is about our ability to come together and forge our future. To stop putting off what needs to be done. To admit that we’ve had it pretty darn good, but now’s the time to start adulting as a state. Can we grow up and forge a faithful and constant allegiance to our state?
Meaning Four: Caring for the poor, disabled, and needy. Alaskans are a generous people. Whether it’s feeding and caring for starving and impoverished people halfway around the world or lending a hand to a neighbor down the street, Alaskans give. We show up. And those values have been reflected in our government. Can we see past desire for personal windfalls and political brinksmanship to continue to be the length and shadow of generosity and compassion for our fellow Alaskans?
I had no idea how profoundly relevant the forget-me-not is as a symbol for Alaska. Our Legislature and governor are at loggerheads. Alaskans disagree on how to fund our government. But I say, legislators, will you forget-me-not? Neighbor, will you forget-me-not?
Let us find a path of true and undying love for our state.
Let us cling to the connections that bind us together as Alaskans.
Let us be ever faithful and allegiant to this place and each other. Let us be kind and loving with each other and especially with those who need our generosity and compassion. Remember the forget-me-not and all it stands for. Let’s live up to its meanings.
Have something on your mind? Send to firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser. Letters under 200 words have the best chance of being published. Writers should disclose any personal or professional connections with the subjects of their letters. Letters are edited for accuracy, clarity and length.
Tents and a shopping cart at a homeless camp along A Street on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
Nine Alaska legislators said in a letter Monday that the Municipality of Anchorage has failed to use its full authority to clear illegal encampments on public land, and asked the city to start cleaning up camps and disposing of waste immediately.
But city officials fired back that the letter failed to offer any realistic solutions to a complex issue and didn’t acknowledge the work already underway. Some said they found the letter offensive and misguided, and that it inaccurately interprets a federal court opinion.
“I’m absolutely offended by this letter,” said Downtown Anchorage Assemblyman Christopher Constant. The letter, he said, revealed that the state lawmakers who signed it believe the city is doing nothing.
“I guess they’ve been in Juneau too long,” he said. “We are working really hard… If there was an easy answer, we would have figured it out by now.”
The letter comes as more people use the city’s parks and greenbelts in the warmer weather. It also follows two incidents, one of them fatal, involving gunfire off the Chester Creek Trail in two days.
One teenager was shot and killed and another injured Sunday following an “altercation” near Sullivan Arena, according to police. There’s no indication they were homeless, police said. On Saturday, after receiving reports of gunshots in a park along the trail, police chased down and arrested Timothy Wood. Officers found Wood in a nearby homeless camp, and he matched a description given to police, according to a charging document filed against him.
Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage, is the legislator behind Monday’s letter addressed to city Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat, and Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll.
The letter is signed by Rep. Chris Tuck, Rep. Geran Tarr, Rep. Harriet Drummond, Rep. Matt Claman, Sen. Tom Begich, Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson and Sen. Bill Wielechowski — all Anchorage Democrats — and Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen.
Fields said he circulated the letter among state lawmakers before the weekend, but the two incidents highlighted “the need for rapid action.”
“This is the No. 1 public safety issue I hear about,” Fields said. “There’s overwhelming community disgust and frustration about criminal activity in the park system and the city’s failure to use their full legal authority to get criminals out of the park system.”
The rights of the homeless
The letter points to a case stemming from Boise, Idaho, Martin v. Boise. In that 2018 case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion that said local governments can’t prohibit sleeping on the streets when there is no shelter available.
In the letter, Fields argues that even under that opinion — which he called “the most restrictive case law related to municipal authority to address squatters/campers" — the city could still clear people and their belongings out of the greenbelt.
“The Municipality of Anchorage has ample space for individuals to sleep outside, including thousands of square acres in Chugach State Park,” said the letter from the Alaska legislators.
“Martin v. Boise does not preclude localities from removing structures or otherwise abating waste left by drug addicts, thieves, and other squatters/campers,” it says. “So long as Anchorage has some place individuals can sleep outside, case law does not limit removal of waste from the park system.”
Fields said he was not recommending shifting people from illegal encampments in the city to Chugach State Park, but he was highlighting the city’s legal authority.
That section of the letter, however, drew ire from some.
Constant questioned whether Fields was proposing “homeless internment camps.” Casey Reynolds, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, said in a statement that expelling people experiencing homelessness to Chugach State Park “is not only unconstitutional, it is horribly inhumane and un-Alaskan.”
“I can certainly say on behalf of the vulnerable, the initial read of the letter is heartbreaking,” said Jasmine Khan, executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
Berkowitz was traveling Monday and not available to comment, said Kristin DeSmith, municipal spokeswoman.
Municipal attorney Becky Windt Pearson said the state legislators’ letter is “an oversimplification of the legal framework that governs homeless camps.”
She said the opinion in the Idaho case doesn’t govern a person’s property, but governs whether a person can sleep outside on public property.
A local case from 2011 governs how the city can gather and throw out people’s belongings from the camp, she said. The ACLU had sued the city on behalf of a homeless man named Dale Engle who said he lost everything he owned when his camp was cleared out in 2009. A Superior Court Judge ruled a city ordinance that allowed authorities to clean up homeless camps — including throwing out their property — with five days’ notice was unconstitutional.
Now, the city gives people 10 days to remove their property before a camp is cleaned up. The city can clear camps within 72 hours of giving notice of the clean-up, Windt Pearson said, but it must store people’s belongings.
The city has recently started noticing and cleaning up camps by zones, and budgeted money toward that process, Constant said.
One of the many homeless camps scattered in the woods along the Chester Creek trail on Monday, April 23, 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth/)
In summer 2018, Windt Pearson said, the city removed 243 tons of personal property from public municipal lands and cleaned up 369 camps.
Fields said he would like to see the immediate removal of encampments in areas where camping is not permitted. He said the city shouldn’t feel chained to the 2011 court decision.
“The city should not allow itself to be bound by a settlement that was utterly dysfunctional and agreed to by a previous administration, and frankly a settlement that predated the incredible and disturbing growth of the encampments,” Fields said.
‘Wasn’t meant to offend’
Fields said he supported housing for people who are homeless, but believes it’s only part of the solution. He said many people living in the illegal encampments have somewhere else to stay and are just using the camps for illegal activities such as selling drugs and moving stolen goods.
Khan said, “it’s dangerous to categorize an entire group of people as criminal, and it always has been throughout history."
The letter said “criminal activity and encampments established by drug addicts will not be solved or addressed at all by expansion of housing.”
“While ‘housing first’ is part of the solution to homelessness, it will not fix the problem of illegal encampments,” the letter said. “To the contrary, failing to enforce prohibitions on encampments sends criminals a message that they can squat, build structures, and engage in criminal activity with impunity.”
Wielechowski, who signed the letter, said for years he’s heard from people with concerns about illegal encampments. That includes concerns about who’s living in the encampment, and the creation of dangerous and unsanitary conditions in public spaces.
But, Wielechowski said, he believed the letter sent Monday could have been done more “artfully.” He said the city has worked on the issue for years and they’ve done a good job. The letter, in part, reflected the frustrations the lawmakers have heard for so many years, he said.
“It wasn’t meant to offend,” he said.
He said he believed the solutions to the illegal encampments in Anchorage include providing mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment and affordable housing. Those solutions could have been better reflected in the letter, he said.
Assembly chair Felix Rivera, who represents Midtown, said he invites the legislators to sit down with members of the Assembly and city administration to learn more about the efforts underway to address illegal encampments. He also invited them to help within the issue, including financially. He proposed using a portion of the alcohol tax that the state receives to help cities address homelessness.
“I believe right now with the current staffing we have and the current systems we have in place we’re doing the best job we can,” Rivera said.