In Juneau, a community finds comfort Living Outside

Thane Campground residents take affordable housing to a new level

Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2007

Don't lecture 22-year-old Karl Wuoti and his neighbors about Juneau's shortage of affordable housing. They have taken matters into their own hands to assemble temporary living quarters at Thane Campground that suit quite nicely, thank you.

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Many of the residents of the city-managed campground commute to work and pay taxes. And they've all said goodbye - at least for the summer - to exorbitant rents and mortgages.

Wuoti, a college student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, arrived in Juneau about two weeks ago for a summer job at TEMSCO Helicopters and has opted to live outdoors rather than spend his wages on inflated housing costs.

"This is so cheap that it's worth it," he said. "I came up with my tent. I can survive in the woods if I need to. If an apartment comes around for the right price, whatever."

"Rent" at Thane Campground runs $5 a day or $100 a month, much more affordable than even the cheapest of apartments. According to the Juneau Economic Development Council's latest economic overview from July of 2006, the average monthly rental rate is $1,026 - "among the highest in the state." The statewide monthly average is $857, it said.

Even if seasonal workers can afford a rental unit, one can be difficult to come by in the summer, JEDC Executive Director Lance Miller said.

"In summers of recent past they have been in high demand and short supply," he said.

Tom Scofic moved out of an apartment and back to Thane Campground for the second year in a row in April. A self-described "outdoors nut," Scofic said it's easier to live outside because housing in the capital city is unaffordable, even for someone with multiple jobs such as himself.

"You can save money," he said. "You know what an apartment costs in Juneau, plus the first and last month deposit. By the time you pay that you might as well buy a car."

The campground bears a mishmash of temporary structures, many constructed out of plywood, pallets and tarpaulins, creating homes that are both stylish and functional. It's a community within the community that is part gypsy neighborhood and part summer camp.

Fifty-six-year-old Dave Randlett came to Alaska last year from Georgia for "a lifestyle change" and to capture the awe and adventure of the last frontier. He moved to Juneau from Haines this winter and has been living at Thane Campground for about a month because he said it is more economically feasible than renting an apartment.

"I looked into it, looked at the bottom line and weighed it against what my income is and decided for the summer this is the best place for me," Randlett said.

Living in a rainforest has its obvious disadvantages (such as buckets of rain), but the beauty and diversity of the flora and fauna make living outdoors quite comfortable, he said.

"The rain makes it uncomfortable sometimes, but we do the best we can with it," Randlett said.

Heather Marlow, city Lands and Resources manager, said Thane Campground was established in 1999 to address concerns of squatting on public and private land throughout the community. Prior to its existence, there were no sites that allowed camping for longer than two weeks, she said.

"This really is serving an enforcement concern and actually a need of the visiting public as well," Marlow said.

The city leases the property from AJT Mining Properties.

Rumors have circulated of the camp's demise after a camper was arrested on assault charges last month after two people were attacked with a knife. Marlow said there is no move to shut the camp down, and the city plans to continue providing a place for transients to call home.

Scofic said the campground is a pretty safe place where people watch out for one another.

"There's like a neighborhood camaraderie and kind of like a neighborhood watch program," he said.

"When I first showed up, I thought it was a little sketchy, but once you get to know people, everyone is really nice," Wuoti said.

The city has done a fair amount of work to upgrade the campground this year, Scofic said. The camp has just about everything a seasonal camper would need, he said, including a covered picnic area, fire rings, water, outhouses, well-established trails and a food cache.

"The only problem is showers and doing your laundry," Scofic said.

Other problems could potentially arise for those who don't use common sense, he said.

"There was a multiple bear attack (Thursday), the first one of the season," Scofic said, which left at least two campsites temporarily damaged but nobody injured. "It's the same little blacky that was running around last year rooting through the garbage cans."

Last year a camper learned the hard way after leaving a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and a container of honey in his tent, which led to the annihilation of his property, Scofic said.

"You don't have to worry about bears unless you do something stupid," he said. "All it takes is some toothpaste or lip balm, aftershave, a half can of beer, or of course any food."

"Common sense is what prevails here," Randlett said.

Living in a rainforest among bears as a "homeless" seasonal worker may seem unbearable to some, but it's paradise to others.

"It's very much like Eden," Randlett said.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com or 523-2269.



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