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ANCHORAGE - On a chilly, drizzly fall day, the city's new homeless coordinator trudged through mud down a steep trail into the heart of one of Anchorage's biggest - and most established - homeless villages.
Here, some of Anchorage's long-time homeless pitch their tents in clusters on undeveloped public land in the Ship Creek area not far from Mountain View's Tyson Elementary School. The city uses part of the parcel for a winter snow dump.
At least 30 to 40 people are now living in the woods here. One group has generators, a TV, stereo, propane stove and couches. Away from the rest, a long-timer built a substantial, wooden structure. In the summer, the population jumps up; in the winter, maybe 10 or so will tough it out, said Sydney Blunt, one of the long-timers. Most people know him as Sinbad, he said.
Mayor Dan Sullivan has made homelessness and especially the persistent problem of homeless alcoholics a priority for his administration. Among his goals: Close down homeless camps while helping the people who live in them. Some advocates worry about the consequences, especially given a new city law giving police power to quickly shut down illegal homeless camps.
"If our goal really is to stop people from camping out, is taking their sleeping bag going to do that or is it simply going to mean we're going to have an extra five or six that die of exposure this year?" said the Rev. Michael Burke, rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church on Tudor Road.
It's not yet clear what will happen to long-existing camps like this one. Blunt said he's lived there off and on about six years. Police visit every now and again.
"They just tell us not to get too comfortable because things could change," Blunt said.
The mayor is hoping for solutions from his new Homeless Leadership Team, which will include people from inside and outside city government. It holds its first meeting next week.
Darrel Hess, on the job just three weeks as the city's first homeless coordinator, and Britteny Ketterman, another city health department official, sought a tour of the sprawling camp to gather on-the-ground information.
Ed O'Neill, head of the Anchorage Responsible Beverage Retailers Association and former owner of Brown Jug liquor stores, led this week's expedition and said the camp known as Veteran's Ridge is usually pretty clean. When it started, many of the residents were vets.
O'Neill has worked for years to clean up homeless camps, believing that a lot of the mess is related to alcohol, either directly or indirectly. He's the leading force behind the retailers association and said his crews and community service workers clean 30 to 40 tons of trash from homeless camps and party spots a year. Blunt, who works day-labor construction, landscaping and snow shoveling gigs, has reached into his own pocket to pay his fellow campers to clean up, O'Neill said.
INSIDE THE CAMP
This homeless village, a maze of tents, tarps and possessions, is fairly tidy and most residents don't cause trouble, O'Neill said. One group of campers, though, is rowdy and living too close to the school, O'Neill said. They need to move, he said. And in a few spots, trash was accumulating: a pile of empty and crushed Natural Ice beer cans, a few empty Monarch vodka bottles.
"There's just a real concern that so many of the homeless are down there and we don't know exactly who they are," said Tyson principal John Kito. While there haven't been any serious incidents, Kito is troubled by the reality of his school bordering the tent village.
One necessity lacking at this and all the homeless camps: A bathroom. People dig holes in the ground, use plastic buckets or hoof it to whatever place will let them in. Port-A-Potties would make a big difference, O'Neill said.
Hess said the sanitation issues are big. Human waste is technically hazardous waste, and city trash pickup crews aren't supposed to haul away honey buckets or their contents, he said. But they probably do so unknowingly.
Hess asked Blunt if he'd like permanent housing.
"All of us would, but you know sometimes the rules are real extensive. You can't smoke or can't do anything or can't make noise or there can only be two people in an apartment in one time," Blunt said. "You are paying for something but aren't free to live in it."
The rules at social service programs are even stricter than those imposed by landlords, he said.
He isn't drinking much these days, he said, though he got pulled over for drunken driving not long ago when coming home from Talkeetna.
Blunt said he works day labor pretty steady. O'Neill asked him why he doesn't get a better-paying job. He can't because he's spent too much of his adult life in prison, he said.
At times, he saves enough money to get an apartment but can't keep up the rent for long. Shelters are full of sick people, he said, so he doesn't go to them anymore.
"Boy, it's tough in the winter," he said. His group is putting up a makeshift wooden fence to block the north wind, which whips through the camp.
While 13 of Anchorage's homeless have died outdoors this year, most of them in warm weather and most related to alcohol, none of the deaths were at Blunt's camp.
"No one gets drunk out of their mind here and passes out and dies," he said. "We keep an eye on each other real close. We may have a drink occasionally but we don't pass out drunk." Homeless people trying to find their way to a shelter sometimes stumble through the camp, drunk.
"We got to snatch them up and run them to Brother Francis or somewhere, keep them alive," Blunt said.
One of the issues for the mayor's new homeless team will be how militant the city should be in cleaning up camps, from big, orderly ones like Veteran's Ridge to the small camps creating problems in neighborhoods from Oceanview to downtown.
Anchorage police for years have flagged camps that need to be cleared out, based on complaints from neighbors, crimes or other problems, police Lt. Dave Parker said. The new ordinance just gives them a tool to do it more quickly. Homeless people in clean, quiet camps generally are left alone, he said. He remembers clearing out problem campers in past years from Veteran's Ridge.
Diane Ingle, city director of health and human services, toured Veteran's Ridge earlier with O'Neill and said she was surprised at how big it was, and how close to the school.
There's no directive from City Hall to be more aggressive in shutting down camps, say police, city officials, and O'Neill.
Under the ordinance, people get 12 hours notice to move out, and if they don't, their property is considered abandoned and carted away. Although the law was approved in July, just after Sullivan became mayor, it was not his initiative, Ingle said.
At police direction, O'Neill sent out a crew in September to bag up the trash and unclaimed belongings from homeless camps near Michael Burke's St. Mary's church. Neighbors had complained and police posted the camps for closure. But the residents were away, sleeping at the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, and were upset to find everything they owned gone, Burke said. Sleeping bags. Tents. Important papers.
"There's this incredible sense of violation," Burke said.
What happened near the church was too abrupt, Burke said. People in camps being shut down should receive intensive, targeted help in getting off the streets.
The homeless deserve better than a camp in a patch of woods, Burke said. But what if it's all they've got?