Campground a refuge to Juneau's homeless

Posted: Monday, July 16, 2007

A recent article in the Juneau Empire about Thane Campground ("In Juneau, a community finds comfort living outside," June 17) provides a disturbingly unbalanced view of life at the site. While describing "living in a rain forest" as a "paradise" to some short-term residents, the article fails to mention the history of the campground or even one of its primary purposes - to provide a safer, healthier place to stay for Juneau's homeless campers on Thane Road.

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In 1997, the city of Juneau's Lands Department, the Glory Hole, Southeast Alaska Guidance Association and St. Vincent de Paul began discussing the issue of homeless campers. This action was in response to injuries, illness, trespassing on private lands, trash, uncontrolled camp fires, and isolation among solitary campers. The city eventually granted $50,000 to help build the campground and now contracts its management.

From the start, our idea was that the independent, low-impact traveler or the seasonal worker using the campground would support the effort to provide a safe, sanitary environment for homeless campers, because the homeless themselves could not support the campground.

Thane Campground was an experiment, but it appears to be working. On many occasions, the campground has brought solitary campers closer together and within the reach of service providers. As a result, several have moved from camping to stable permanent housing of their own.

The city's decision to help fund Thane Campground is one of the most significant steps it has taken to address the crisis of homelessness in Juneau. Nevertheless, the campground is clearly only a temporary fix for a much larger problem. As a year-round local resident will likely tell you, living outside in the winter isn't "paradise." In fact, cold and wet conditions make it downright dangerous. And it certainly is no place to stay for the many working homeless families that are the fastest growing segment of Juneau's homeless population. Estimates put our homeless population at around 600 individuals, more than 150 of which are children.

Short-term residents who see the campground as a rain forest paradise are certainly welcome to stay. But the story of the campground runs much deeper than that. The real story begins with a successful commitment to address homelessness in Juneau and ends with the realization that much more still needs to be done.

Dan Austin

General manager

St. Vincent de Paul Society


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