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City isn’t making headway in addressing long-term homelessness

  • Author: Bryan Silva
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 11, 2018
  • Published June 11, 2018

(Loren Holmes / ADN)

On the first sunny day I can remember in several weeks, I, like hundreds of others, went on the trail along Campbell Creek. I heard languages other than English and I believe a number of tourists were on the trail, along with families with children and many others, enjoying the park space.

I also saw a few "campers," as they are being called. I recognized one fellow I have seen entering and leaving the woods since last summer. He and his girlfriend were leaving their tent site, heading in to town. I regularly see this fellow panhandling at the corner of Lake Otis Parkway and Tudor Road. I watched as he grew a luxuriant beard, which he has now shaved off.

At another point, a young homeless man was also enjoying the sun, sitting on a bench, shoes off, out of the shade of the trees where his camp is located. He had a bicycle with him. Nearby, just out of sight of the trail, was a large, five-man tent. This was set up on a platform of half a dozen pallets. There was a bicycle at this site, also, along with an accumulation of trash. A "honey bucket" was nearby for use by the occupants. No doubt this bucket will not be treated responsibly, but it is an improvement on the usual arrangement.

A hundred yards away was another camp. This one was camouflaged with green tree limbs cut from the living trees, and sits near an associated trash field. It is in roughly the same location as another camp I reported a year ago. That one was probably cleaned out, but the site is now reoccupied. Both the old and the new sit near the edge of a burnt-out two- or three-acre patch. The fire was started three years ago by some campers who were using a fire to burn insulation from electrical wire, which sells for more as scrap when it is naked.

I find frequent evidence of such small fires in the woods and/or evidence of the wiring insulation, left where it was removed. Stripped bicycle frames are common items found in the woods from "chop" episodes. Along with petty theft and panhandling, these are ways many campers pay for their lifestyle.

I, like anyone who tramps the parks, can point to active, abandoned or recently cleaned camp sites in our park lands. I attend meetings organized by the City Assembly where the same things are said again and again: "The city's hands are tied. The campers are entitled to due process and privacy." The problem is getting worse each year. The campers are growing more and more belligerent. And the figures show we are housing more formerly homeless people who don't want to be "campers."

But some do want to be campers, and there is little being done to discourage them. On the south side of Tudor, social services have little effect. These people want to be left alone by the entities arranged to help them. They are free to indulge in petty theft and begging for cash to perpetuate their lifestyles. A short distance from the trails, the woods are a dangerous place, with abandoned needles, trash, human feces and belligerent campers who are coming to see themselves as "homesteaders" persecuted for being different.

Some of the camps are well organized and rather tidy. Most are not, and I, alongside many other concerned citizens, have hauled many piles of abandoned junk out of the woods we care about. It is truly disheartening to see the woods treated so. The destructive nature of this abuse is apparent when you compare areas that are, or have been, occupied with some that are pristine.

As far as I can tell, nothing is being done to stop the camping. Notices are given and the threat of property removal is made. The campers simply move. They may abandon the stuff for the city to clean up or take what they want along with them. A new location starts the clock again. Since the process for cleanup is so backlogged, it will be months before the new site is flagged. I have seen the same sites occupied soon after being cleaned up. It's kind of like maid service, ready for the next tenant. Is this really the only solution to the problem we can come up with?

The city always has excuses. When will it end? I don't know, and the city seems to have no idea. I suppose the camping will stop when the park spaces have become so uninhabitable and foul that the campers move elsewhere. In a way, the city clean-up efforts prolong the agony. They certainly don't address the problem.

Bryan Silva is an East Anchorage resident.

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