A campsite of one's own

City's Thane campground is providing shelter for the homeless, but doesn't solve all their problems

Posted: Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Campers staying at the city's Thane Public Campground may grumble about the nettles and the dog food-eating bears, but most make the best of it.

"Five dollars a day is the cheapest I have ever paid in my life, so I'm a happy person," said Bruce Owens, 47, a Portland, Ore., carver financing his Alaska vacation by making soapstone figurines for local gift shops. "I am tickled to pay it."

Three years ago, squatters were becoming a nuisance around town when AJT Mining Properties, owner of property on Thane Road, suggested creating the public campground. An on-site supervisor would help to keep the grounds neat and the atmosphere congenial for long- and short-term occupants, including seasonal workers.

The lease for the Thane Public Campground was signed in April 1999.

"It was a collaborative arrangement with the city to find a place for homeless people to stay, to keep them from camping all over the borough, as well as to provide a place for tourists who want to camp out," said Bill Corbus, president and general manager of Alaska Electric Light & Power, an affiliate of AJT.

The 3.7-acre campground is on the uphill side of Thane Road, in thick tree and brush cover. It averages eight to nine people at a time but occasionally a large group, such as 30 California teenagers headed for the Chilkoot Trail, stays overnight.

"This year we actually have the people it was invented for; people like Bruce Owens, who has found work," said caretaker Jason Layton, a city employee who lives on site in a trailer.

City Lands and Resources Manager Steve Gilbertson said the campground is doing its job.

"It's a mixture of people who need a place to stay for the season, and people visiting like bicyclists from Europe," he said. "We look at it as a safety value for the city. We have shelters like the Glory Hole and St. Vincent de Paul, but not everybody will follow the rules at places like that."

Thane Public Campground was constructed using $55,000 of city funds earmarked for low-income housing. It supplies drinking water in a bladder at highway level, portable toilets, lock boxes, bear-proof trash cans, covered picnic tables and 25 numbered campsites. Operating costs run about $4,000 a season, Gilbertson said.

"I think the general sense is that it has helped solve the indiscriminate camping problem we have had, but not entirely. Because of human nature, it may be impossible to solve," Gilbertson said.

The fee is $5 per day and campers without cash can trade chores for fees, Gilbertson said.

Some campers think the fee is too high or that other amenities should be offered.

"I think I'm paying too much for what I'm getting," said Mike Bethel, 42, of Idaho. Bethel has lived at the campground for a week and a half, working a remodeling job while saving to buy a boat.

"I would love to see water on top of this hill," said Tim Smythe, 26, of Maryland, a maintenance worker who plans on staying at the campground with his dog through the summer. "Electricity isn't as important, but it would be nice as well."

Layton is improving the sites for long-term guests by installing a pair of posts at each camp site, on which a tent fly or tarp for a roof can be hung. He's also laying down shipping palettes to keep tent floors off the moist ground.

"Alaska Marine Lines is donating palettes. We also accept used camping gear," he said.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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