The warning lights are flashing and alarm bells are ringing, if you know where to look and when to listen.
Late last week, those lights were flashing on Third Avenue across from Bean's Cafe, where local businessman Ron Alleva spread pool cleaner — calcium hypochlorite — in what he called an effort to abate biological hazards left by the homeless people who frequent the area. The pool cleaner sparked health concerns, as it isn't safe for people to ingest or breathe; emergency medical personnel turned out and police are investigating.
As for the alarm bells, you can hear them ringing if you spend time on the paths through the Chester Creek and Campbell Creek greenbelts. There, the sounds of domestic disturbances or the breaking-down of stolen bicycles at longstanding homeless camps in the surrounding woods illustrate the potential danger of being around at the wrong time or in the wrong company.
Anchorage has a serious problem with homelessness. That's not a new development, nor is it news to many who live and work in the area. But the problem has gone unresolved for long enough that it's festering, and conflicts like the one last week near Bean's Cafe are a warning of rising tempers surrounding the issue that could result in real harm to Anchorage homeowners, businesses and members of the homeless community.
There is no easy answer to turning the problem around. It's a complicated issue, with many contributing factors: a difficult-to-track transient population that frequently shifts between communities on and off the road system, shortfalls in mental health care, spotty enforcement of laws relating to homelessness, high rates of substance abuse and domestic violence, and the state's highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate are among them. Dedicated people in Anchorage have made valiant efforts at confronting and abating the issue; without their work, the city would be in straits even more dire than it is now.
But what we're doing now isn't turning the tide, and every moment we wait before tackling the issue with greater resources and resolve will make it harder.
In recognition that the current piecemeal approach of homeless camp abatement isn't working, Assemblyman Christopher Constant has proposed an ordinance to clean up camps by zones instead. The measure has drawn opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union, who advocate for more individual notice and a focus on providing services that help people escape the cycle of homelessness rather than simply forcing their removal from an area.
From an effectiveness standpoint, Assemblyman Constant's proposed abatement method would be an improvement on the scattershot system employed at present. Cleaning up one camp at a time does little to address a problem that stretches citywide. At the same time, however, it's true that moving people around without changing their circumstances won't solve problems in and of itself.
Ultimately, a complicated problem will require a complicated solution. Cleaning up homeless camps will only work if it is paired with other action to help inhabitants get off the streets. That means more attention paid to matching homeless residents with services. It means fixing an overtaxed mental health services system. It means addressing substance abuse and domestic violence issues as a community, within our own families and among our friends. It means promoting economic opportunities that will create more jobs, providing financial security for people who don't have it now. It requires leadership, a will to not only speak about the issue but also take action and see solutions through. And it requires compassion — a recognition that homeless people are not lesser than those who are more fortunate. They have rights and dignity, and our solutions to the homelessness problem should seek to preserve both.
Turning around the homelessness problem in the Anchorage area will be neither easy nor cheap, but waiting will only make it harder and more expensive. We need a plan now.
The views expressed here are those of the Anchorage Daily News, as expressed by its editorial board which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Current editorial board members are Ryan Binkley, Andy Pennington, David Hulen, Tom Hewitt and Andrew Jensen. To submit a piece for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser.