City opens camp for homeless

AEL&P plans to tear down displaced squatters' hillside campsite today

Posted: Thursday, November 12, 2009

The city has decided to keep its Thane Campground open through the winter, providing a legal place for homeless citizens to endure Alaska's coldest season.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The city had planned to shut the campground down at the end of the month - something it does annually - but concerns arose after a homeless enclave known as "The Hill" was scheduled to be razed today. At least a dozen people illegally camp on The Hill, land the Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. owns above the emergency bypass road off South Franklin Street.

Mayor Bruce Botelho said the city felt it was important to make sure people who need shelter have it.

"It's just one of those fundamental things," he said. "I don't think we see this as a long-term solution, but it will get us through this winter and give us an opportunity to review what our options are in a more deliberate fashion rather than immediately with the onset of winter."

Glory Hole Executive Director Mariya Lovishcuk said the city and AEL&P stepped up to the plate to find a temporary solution. The compromise allows the campers at the legal campground to stay through the winter and provides the homeless at the illegal site a place to go. However, she is still concerned with how it will all play out.

"There are two populations here," Lovishcuk said. "The population that is already at the Thane Campground is gonna do great. The folks that are getting kicked off The Hill, who knows what they're gonna do. It's not gonna to be great, but it wasn't that great to begin with."

The Glory Hole, the city, AEL&P and some volunteers will help maintain the legal campground and the seasonal caretaker has agreed to stay on through the winter. The city also halved the monthly camping fee from $100 to $50.

"I think that is a very reasonable amount to expect people to pay," Lovishcuk said.

Dave Randlett said he was very relieved to hear that he won't have to tear down his "pallet palace" at the Thane Campground at the end of the month. The 58-year-old has built a sturdy tarpaulin structure that shelters a bed, chairs, table, woodstove and a radio.

Randlett, who collects unemployment and is searching for a job, describes the camp as a beautiful place to read, live and play the guitar.

"It's just the most creative atmosphere I could ever live in," he said. "I was horrified in the fact that I might be homeless again. ... To just be thrown out like that's a hard thing. And I can understand what some of those people down the road are probably going through."

The campground has portable toilets and garbage bins for proper sanitation. The six campers living there as of Wednesday have a good rapport with one another, Randlett said.

"We look out for each other. All summer we have. We haven't had any problem with trouble, stealing or theft or anything like that," he said, but added that there have been some problems in past years. "This year has been very nice."

Randlett is not concerned about a potential influx of people at the campground coming from The Hill, as long as they abide by the campground rules.

"They will be welcome to come if they want. It's a beautiful campground," he said. "I don't know how happy they are going to be having to pay $50 a month."

Lovishcuk said she has some concerns about the two populations converging.

"I'm a little worried increasing the numbers there will destroy their harmonious existence," she said. "But I think that can be mitigated by just adding a little bit of help."

It is too early to say how many people from The Hill will move to the Thane Campground, Lovishcuk said.

"I think what a lot of people, and I think it's very sad, is they are moving up the hill more. So they are moving farther up the hill so when they come to clear it out they won't find them but they will still be on the property. ... They will be harder to check on, it will be way more dangerous and it will be a lot harder for them to get into town."

Randlett said he chooses to live the way he does and felt guilty when he recently told the U.S. Census Bureau that he is homeless.

"I don't want to live in a box," he said. "Everybody thinks anybody that wants to live outside the box that there is something wrong with them. But that expression I'm sure didn't come from nothing."

There are numerous homeless camps around the state that are accepted from Petersburg to Cordova, Randlett said. A friend recently told him that his "pallet palace" would be envied in nearby Elfin Cove.

"He said, 'Dave, if you had this in Elfin Cove, you'd be in the high-rent district,' and I laughed. 'You'd be in the top tier of homelessness.' All I really seek is to make it comfortable and it is," Randlett said.

The homeless shelters in Juneau have been at capacity so a solution needed to be found by today to deal with the squatters on The Hill. Allowing people to stay the winter at the Thane Campground was the best immediate alternative, Botelho said.

"To underscore something that (City Manager) Rod Swope has said, while this is a city issue it's also a community issue," he said.

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



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