Homeless camp to be razed Thursday

Illegal campground known as 'The Hill' sits on AEL&P land

Posted: Sunday, November 08, 2009

After the tent city Michael Talton has called home for the past year and a half is razed on Thursday, the 58-year-old has no idea where he will bed down.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. put signs up around its property on the hillside above South Franklin Street last week, ordering the illegal campground known as "The Hill" to be vacated. If the roughly dozen tent owners don't leave, they will be arrested for trespassing, the sign says.

"I have absolutely nowhere to go. Nowhere," Talton said. "It's going to be snowing here before long."

The menagerie of makeshift shelters lines a flat section above the emergency bypass road near Taku Smokeries. Some have been there more than a year. Copious beer cans, coolers, propane tanks, rusty pots and pans and old honey buckets litter the area.

The campers get along pretty well and there are hardly ever any problems on The Hill, Talton said.

"We need some place to go, that's it," he said. "I was thinking about trying to move up higher but they put signs all the way up to the mine up there. That's gonna be a long trek in the winter time. It's hard enough getting right here."

AEL&P President Tim McLeod said the decision to clear the area came after a tree felled for firewood struck a power line and caused an outage.

"When we got up there and investigated, we found the tree was dropped for that purpose so we decided it's time again to let people know that they are not allowed to trespass here, and they need to find a different place to be building these shelters," he said.

The company didn't realize before fixing the line that so many people were camping there again since they last cleaned up the area, McLeod said.

"We do worry about liabilities. We don't want someone to get up there and get hurt, just like dropping a tree on a power line," he said. "We certainly do worry that someone could get up there and get hurt, or as they've had problems in Anchorage where people freeze to death and so forth. We just don't want that responsibility and that liability."

The Juneau Assembly has not discussed removing homeless camps, as Anchorage did after a string of homeless deaths earlier this year, many of which were related to exposure and intoxication.

"No, we don't have a fallback at this stage, at least as far as I know," Mayor Bruce Botelho said, adding that he just heard about the camp cleanup on Friday morning. "I'm not aware that we've taken any further steps as a city to try and locate other space."

The city manages a site in Thane that allows extended camping that operates from the spring through fall. The city extended the season to allow people to use that campground until the end of the month.

Executive Director Mariya Lovishchuk of the Glory Hole said the 43-bed homeless shelter is already at capacity. She is worried about where the people from both camps are going to end up.

"I don't have room for these people," she said. "The deal is there is nowhere for them to go."

Lovishchuk is concerned that ousting the campers living at The Hill will scatter them into isolated pockets and make them more susceptible to harm. The homeless campers watch out for each other, she said.

"I think that's where you have your danger come in, you know, people dying in their tents because they're totally unsupervised by their peers," Lovishchuk said. "There's this whole system of checking on people, like a safety net, that will be totally destroyed."

Some of the campers have been living there for an extended period of time and will be hard pressed to find another adequate spot to sleep at night, she said.

"Now is not the time to be getting ready for winter. Winter is here. If you have your settlement out there, now is not the time to try and find another place and rebuild it," Lovishchuk said. "Now is the time to kind of like hunker down and make sure you're OK."

Talton, who lived on The Hill all last winter, said he can't stay at the Glory Hole even if there was room because he has a dog. He is unemployed and disabled so he can't get an apartment either.

"There's been times when I've been stuck up here for months on end, not being able to walk," he said. "I really don't know what I'm gonna do."

It will be difficult to leave, but the law is the law, Talton said.

"Since they told us to leave, when they put up the signs, I just gotta go. That's all there is to it," he said. "There's no use being mad cause it just doesn't do any good."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrisonat 523-2269 or e-mail eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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