Month after month, a homeless camp grows along Ingra Street on the edge of Downtown Anchorage.
The collection of tents – some flattened, one burned, one standing tall and brimming with sleeping bags – lie scattered among propane tanks and shopping carts. A few yards away, cars race along Ingra Street, one of Anchorage’s busiest roadways.
“When the leaves fell we really noticed how big it was,” said Monica Emerton, owner of a neighboring horticulture business, Green Connection.
Emerton and her employees have reported the apparently illegal campsite to the city 10 or more times, she said, using the municipality's new online reporting tool.
“Slowly, kind of one by one, we got them (the reports) kicked back to us saying there was nothing they could do because it wasn’t on public property,” Emerton said.
Some of the tents sit on land owned by Jeanette Johnson, who also owns adjacent Crazy Horse strip club. Others are on state property that extends uphill toward 15th Avenue.
As a result, the case has become a lesson in how slow, complicated and difficult it can be to clear an illegal campsite in the heart of the city. Even when campers are clearly squatting on public land, restricted availability of community work service crews for labor and limited winter access to remote campsites sometimes delays clean up across the municipality.
“That’s what’s frustrating for some of the community members. It takes longer to clean up because there’s so many and that queue is longer,” said Nancy Burke, homeless and housing coordinator for the city.
Burke said that Anchorage is meeting the mayor’s goal of housing 100 people per year and has reduced visits to the sleep off center – a possible sign that fewer vulnerable people are living on the street. But of the campers who remain hidden among Anchorage’s woodsy trails and neighborhoods, a changing demographic has emerged.
“It used to be people that were really trying to just get by and get to their next location, so they were camping for a period of time,” Burke said. “Now we’re seeing more belongings in the camp and permanent-type structures.”
While the Anchorage Assembly recently shortened the warning period for illegal campsites from 15 to 10 days, the Crazy Horse-area tents remained in regular use months after they were first reported. Police at one point cleared the tents, but the old occupants either soon returned or new campers arrived.
The timeline of enforcement at the campsite is hard to trace. Burke, the homeless and housing coordinator, says city records show the site was reported in September and cleared, and reported again in December but the case was closed because the camp was believed to be on private property.
(At one point, every tent in the area was cleared of occupants by police, who mistakenly believed all were on public property, an APD spokeswoman said.)
After all the reports, the police visit, and the concern from neighboring businesses, the camp site appears to remains active. As Emerton spoke to a reporter Thursday afternoon, a man could be seen picking his way through the debris, walking carefully in the snowy campsite below.