Homeless individuals concerned for safety following recent murders in Anchorage

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The recent brutal murders of two Alaska Native women in Anchorage have raised safety concerns at local homeless shelters.

Channel 2 speaks with homeless women outside of Bean's Cafe on Friday Oct. 18. (KTUU)

Bean’s Café Executive Director Lisa Sauder confirms that both victims -- 30-year-old Kathleen Henry and 53-year-old Veronica Abouchuk -- utilized services at homeless shelters in Anchorage. Channel 2 spoke with several individuals outside of Bean’s on Friday who claim to have known the two women.

"Alaska Native women have been disappearing, gone, dead,” Marie Nickolai said with tears in her eyes. “And then next thing you know, you hear about them on the news. And do I hurt? I hurt every day."

Nickolai, and other patrons of Bean’s, claim to have seen the man who allegedly murdered Henry and Abouchuk occasionally hanging around the Bean's campus.

They immediately recognized pictures of alleged murderer Brian Smith, a 48-year-old immigrant from South Africa who recently obtained citizenship. Smith is indicted on 13 felonies, and if found guilty he faces a potential life sentence.

Sauder says Bean’s has never seen Smith around the area, and they do keep a lookout for any potential safety threats to their clients. Of the several women who spoke to Channel 2 Friday, many reported they are frequently preyed upon by shady individuals near the campus.

"Certainly, this population is preyed upon by drug dealers," Sauder said, “by people who want to harm them in some way, take any resources they may have -- they're a very vulnerable population, and it's certainly of concern."

New homeless counts conducted by the municipality from Aug. 19-23 show a slight increase in the number of people living on the streets this year (1,111) compared to 2018 (1,094). Housing and Homeless Services Coordinator Nancy Burke attributes this in part to the threat of budget cuts to state homeless services, which have since been significantly restored.

The number of people using emergency winter shelter this year (629) is the highest it's been since 2013 (551). Despite these numbers, Burke says many homeless individuals have said they feel unsafe in what they call crowded shelters, and the Smith case has exacerbated those fears.

When asked about the concerns expressed by homeless individuals, Sauder maintains that emergency cold weather shelters are the safest place for people to be.

“We work very hard to maintain a safe environment for everyone involved,” Sauder said. “But certainly, I think people are safer being in a facility where there are trained people to assist them if they have a problem, rather than being in the woods or on the street.”

Sauder says the brutal murders Brian Smith is accused of committing highlight the vulnerability of women -- in particular Alaska Native women, who according to the municipality make up a significant percentage of the city’s homeless population.

"It's heartbreaking,” Sauder said. “Any time you have someone who's murdered in such a horrible fashion that's part of your community … it's gut-wrenching. It's a terrible thing to see for all of Alaska – not just for the people that knew the victims, or for their families."

Bean’s will open as an emergency cold weather shelter in mid-Nov. Sauder says they will be training staff on how to identify any activity that seems out of place, including potential human or drug trafficking.

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