Alaska's hardcore homeless cope with winter outdoors

Posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Ron Feldhouse draws the line at 45 degrees below zero. Then it's time to sleep indoors.

Otherwise, he sets up camp in the woods outside Fairbanks, where winter temperatures can hover around 20 below zero or colder for weeks at a stretch - cold enough to be fatal for the unprepared.

Dealing with extreme elements is the norm for Feldhouse and other hardcore homeless Alaskans.

"It's a learned art," said Feldhouse, 47. "After a while, you just start getting used to it."

Many of Alaska's indigent - a population that's difficult to measure - cope by drifting from couch to couch or sleeping in motels, cars, boats and homeless shelters in the larger cities.

But a small number say they prefer dealing with the bitter cold to following the rules at shelters, which limit stays, ban alcohol and drugs and impose strict curfews.

Ed Heeckt arrived in Alaska a year ago from Arlington, Wash., and got a short-lived job processing fish for $8.50 an hour in Juneau. He stayed at the Glory Hole shelter for a week, but hated the cramped quarters.

"I can't handle the snoring and the smelly feet of a shelter," said Heeckt, 36.

He set up a hand-me-down tent among spruce and alder trees just outside downtown Juneau. In the summer, he has a perfect view of the cruise ships that visit.

Practiced campers say it's not that hard to stay warm - it just takes a little ingenuity. They dig caves in snow mounds, pack snow high around outer tent walls for insulation and line inner edges with clothing. Some burrow in trash bins or curl up in doorways.

On cold nights, Heeckt burns a can of gel fuel inside his tent for 10 minutes to get it "nice and warm." He puts on layers of shirts, pants, a couple pairs of socks and a hat before diving into his mummy-style sleeping bag, which is sandwiched between a plastic foam pad and a pile of blankets.

In Anchorage, a city of 274,000, agencies that work with the homeless estimate 8,000 to 10,000 people find themselves without a permanent roof at least temporarily over any given year, though only a fraction end up at makeshift camps hidden around the city.

Many campers are Alaska Natives, said Norma Carter, social services director of Bean's Cafe, a day shelter and soup kitchen in Anchorage. She knows a 92-year-old man who grudgingly moved into a subsidized assisted-living home three months ago.

"I think it's a cultural thing in some cases, where people are accustomed to taking a boat up the river and sleeping on the bank, under the stars," she said. "For others, it's just not having money, not wanting to be found. There are different reasons why people camp."

"I just don't like being tied down," Feldhouse said. "Living like this lightens the load. I don't have to answer to anybody, don't have bills to pay."

Ellamae Clark, 43, who has camped in Anchorage for nine years, said she rarely feels the cold, having grown up in a village above the Arctic Circle.

"I even sleep in shorts," she said. "For me, it's an easy life. Having a camp is harder in the summer because you have to watch out for teenagers who want to vandalize it. In the summer, it gets too hot."

Chronic homelessness is almost unheard of in rural communities, where few people are strangers. That applies even to places as big as Bethel - a largely Yupik Eskimo town of 5,900 people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta.

"If your second cousin is in need, society out here will take care of them. You can pretty much get help," said City Manager Bob Herron.

Leaving the state is not an option for people who can't scrape together the price of a plane ticket to a warmer place. But many wouldn't want to live anywhere else, said Jetta Whittaker, director of the Juneau shelter.

"It's certainly easier to be homeless somewhere else where it's not as cold, where you can sleep under a bridge and it's not life-threatening," Whittaker said. "But this is their home, their community."



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