With limited services, homeless residents of Anchorage’s Centennial Campground begin to adjust to a new reality

Mornings at Centennial Campground are the quiet part of the day.

“It’s OK, it’s not bad here,” said James Keele, seated at a picnic table between his tent and his broken-down Honda on Wednesday. “It’s like that pretty much every day until about 9:30, 10, maybe 11 at night.”

This is where, Keele said, the partying, drinking, drugs, screaming and fighting begins, crackling erratically for most of the night.

“I don’t feel safe at all,” Keele said. “I barely sleep.”

Keele in his forties, salt-and-pepper haircut. His black dog Atticus was with him, pacing on a leash. Keele was one of the first campers to arrive at the city-owned Centennial Campgrounds in late June, and has since seen conditions worsen as more than 170 people moved into a property that, until to recently welcomed recreational campers, many of them in recreational vehicles. Now the 86 official gravel-covered sites are stocked with tents, vehicles, propane tanks, bikes, tarps, food, bear bins, cooking utensils, buggies and water jugs. More tents speckle a grassy area reserved for women and spill out into the woods.

Since the closure of the emergency mass care shelter at the Sullivan Arena last week, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration has moved people and city resources to the campground, even though the area n is not set up to operate as a homeless shelter and lacks basic amenities, services and infrastructure to cope with the sudden population explosion. Anchorage Assembly members, nonprofits and social service providers have been largely unaware of the sudden change in policy, and with no plans or communication from the administration, groups have began to set up improvised and ad hoc systems to meet people’s needs. . According to data presented to the Anchorage Assembly on Wednesday by public safety officials, call emergency medical services and Anchorage Security Patrol have increased significantly in the campground and surrounding areas since its reassignment.

Keele is adjusting as best he can, but there are inevitably problems. If he leaves something out, he risks being scammed. With only two hired security guards working at any given time, the arguments drag on, sometimes for hours. The bathrooms are filthy.

“No toilet paper, all the toilets are overflowing,” Keele said. “I don’t know what kind of sick person would put poo all over the stalls, but someone did this. It’s just unsanitary. »

Food also proved to be a tricky variable to consider at Centennial Park. The area clashes with the Chugach Mountains, a lousy area with bears, who are bold as they enter camp, drawn to the smells sizzling on stoves and grills, and foraging freely. Keele said he threw a rock at whoever tore down a tent to ransack a woman’s cooler, where she had stored ribs and meat. Everyone seemed to have a bear story on Wednesday afternoon, with the most dramatic being the four shot by state officials the day before. But no one is quite sure what to do: people need to eat, and despite the 80 bear-proof food containers purchased by the municipality for campers, donated snacks and meals will continue to be kept on tables, in tents and on top. pile of garbage.

[4 bears killed in East Anchorage campground that city repurposed for homeless residents]

A non-profit organization distributes food. Occasionally, volunteers drop off hot meals. Given the unpredictability of food, people have taken to hoarding what they can find and storing it in their tents, according to Roger Branson, co-chair of the Homeless Resources Advisory Council, which has been there since the centenary. was reused.

People staying at the campground, Branson said, need to be confident they can rely on essential goods and services in order to begin to address longer-term issues. “It takes time for people to see that’s the case,” he said.

Branson said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the sudden move from Sullivan Arena to Centennial Campground might better help people who have nowhere to go. He estimated there were 170 people staying at the site, with up to a hundred more circulating on any given day. Looming uncertainty over whether the mass care site in the arena would suddenly close has given way to a Centenary arrangement with no clear end date yet announced by City Hall. As the dust of the past few weeks has settled, Branson said, it’s given some people some stability underfoot, though it’s a setup full of potential pitfalls.

“People moving here are in significant turmoil,” he said. Still, he sees the camp as an opportunity to help guide people to better conditions.

The footprint of organizations and public bodies on the site is extremely light. Tuesday, Bean’s Cafe announcement it would provide three meals each day of the week, including hot food that would require no heating or open flame. A few park department employees were on hand. There are no police on site or accredited mental health professionals. A nebulous small number of nonprofit staff and volunteers circulated. Two white awnings and a dry-erase board set up at campsite number 10 marked out a toilet block, a kind of unofficial community center where about ten people were gathered, sporadically helping with small tasks or managing the donations people had. deposited.

A lone volunteer, who declined to give her name or speak officially, sorted through a wide range of requests, doing her best to direct people to the limited capacity for help. A woman approached to ask to stay at the campsite, wondering if there were any tents. The volunteer told her there were none, but pointed out the general area that she would have to set up herself in case a tent became available. Another woman showed up in a Subaru and told the volunteer that she had a plan to help: if campers could get to the bus stop, there was direct service to an employment center where they could have their CV revised and find a job. The volunteer told the benefactor that she could post information on the whiteboard. Three young men walked by and said they were there to help. The volunteer exchanged contact details with them.

“We don’t have access to sanitation,” said Brian Sharpe, 54, sitting at a picnic table at the edge of the hub site with some friends.

“We don’t have any towels,” said a friend, looking up from a crossword puzzle.

Compassionate residents who want to help have consistently shown up with donated supplies, Sharpe said, but many don’t match campers’ actual needs.

“They drop off sunscreen and lotion-lotion. We need things like toothpaste, toothbrushes, razors,” he said.

Overall, Sharpe and his friends, who had all previously stayed at the Sullivan Arena, preferred the campground. There is no curfew. There is enough space that if someone is loud, argumentative or annoying you can just move elsewhere for some peace.

“It’s a little more private,” Sharpe said. “In Sullivan, you could only walk 50 feet and still hear them being idiots.”

But there are more than a few new issues. For one, the distance and time it takes campers to get to virtually anywhere else. The far east campground of the Anchorage Bowl is nestled between the woods and the highway. The nearest place to eat is a Holiday gas station 20 minutes walk away. It takes longer, said Joseph Link, sitting across from his friends, if you’re carrying a trash bag full of clothes to the laundromat in the same neighborhood.

“Mail is pretty much the most important thing right now,” Link said. In order for him to collect his general mail, he must go to the post office in Fairview, 6 and a half miles away. Many of the social services people need, and public transit to get there, are within walking distance of Centennial.

Without an address or place to send mail, campers can’t do basic things to help themselves, like picking up checks or filing paperwork for housing and benefit applications.

The two men hoped to be able to obtain bus vouchers. Not just for the mail – Sharpe needed a doctor’s visit.

“Someone stole my painkiller,” he said, rattling near-empty pill bottles out of a black backpack. “It’s time to reload.”

The other obstacle staring at him, however, was a telephone. He had none. Sharpe wants to get into housing, but that’s a lot harder to do if a program or case manager can’t reach you. GCI needed $27 to connect him with its federally funded program for low-income Alaskans. But he didn’t. Or a way to pick up the mail. Or a bus pass.

“I can’t do most of the things that I’m supposed to do because I have no way to do it,” Sharpe said. “I take one step forward and I’m pushed back two steps.”

Even though residents have phones, it’s a continuous ordeal just to keep them charged. Although some campsites are wired for RV hookups, many have no power source at all.

“We’re trying to find accommodation right now,” said Frank Cleveland, seated next to his girlfriend, Nellie Alexie. People had stopped by that morning to discuss their housing options with them, but the couple had no way of following up. “They tell us to call but we have no way to call. No phone.”

They try to borrow devices from friends, but “they have (a) trouble finding a place to charge their phones,” Alexie said.

There are a few catches inside the bathrooms, but Alexie said this brings a whole new set of risks. She had heard of a man in the women’s shower recently. And another more disturbing story about a woman who has been sexually assaulted.

“Whenever my darling leaves, I always go with her,” Cleveland said, opening the blade of the knife he carries as a precaution as they emerge from their campsite at night.

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