Homeless or Homesteading: Can Anchorage solve its illegal camping problem in city parks?

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Anchorage, KTUU — City dwellers fed up with tent cities alongside Anchorage's trail system and greenbelts say the campers are acting more like homesteaders than people who are homeless – claiming space as their own, running people off, attracting crime, and creating unsightly, unsanitary messes. A renewed push is underway, to return enjoyment of the city's public spaces, to the public.

Tools at an illegal camp along the Chester Creek trail on May 22, 2018.

Homelessness in Anchorage is not a new issue. For years it's been a nomadic phenomenon. Bust up a camp in one part of town, a new one is destined to turn up somewhere else. In recent years, the city has worked to get its most vulnerable residents – drug addicts, the disabled, the mentally ill – off the streets and into housing.

Yet, the problem of homelessness as a blight on parks and neighborhoods continues. And it may be because those who are left represent a group of individuals who are not acutely vulnerable, but who may need some other type of intervention to get them off the streets.

"You can't have a safe existence with people out in the community who are camping. That can't happen," Nancy Burke, the city's Homeless and Housing Coordinator, said in an interview Tuesday.

While hundreds of individuals have been moved into housing, many still live outdoors, whether by choice or by circumstance. The number of people living in shelters, on the streets, and in illegal camps always goes up in the summer. According to Burke, in January 2018, the city counted 807 people without housing, while in August of 2017, 1,263 were counted as homeless.

Retired Superior Court Judge Stephanie Rhoades lives near the Chester Creek Greenbelt Park in midtown. She left the bench last September, ending a 25-year career spent helping people who needed help get on the right track. She founded the city's wellness and therapeutic courts and has seen first-hand what cognitive disabilities or addiction impacts have on a person's decision making and ability to make good decisions.

On a walk of the trails Tuesday, weaving between camps in the woods, Rhoades said what's going on in the park near her home has more to do with crime than it does with homelessness.

"There is a belligerence in the folks that are living here. If you walk into a camp, the general response is 'What are you doing on my property?'" Rhoades said.

In addition to living in the park illegally, "they steal bikes from surrounding areas and chop them up or sell the components, or they make one bike that's resalable for a good amount. Clothing, coffee makers, computers – there's just an endless supply of things people have gotten from other people's homes," Rhoades said.

The camps KTUU visited had an eclectic mix of use of space. Some areas were tidy and clean, staked out with woven wood fences, pallet board subfloor, and lawn chairs. Some had generators and propane tanks. Others were littered with clothing, giant teddy bears, soda and liquor bottles, needles, garbage bags, paper products, part of a Shark brand vacuum cleaner. Many had bicycle buggies – the kind used for kids – and bicycles. Tools and broken down bicycles, bicycle parts and coils of piping — the kind you'd find in the walls of a home — were also visible, as were grills, and the charred remains of open pit fires.

One group of young adults we encountered declined to speak on camera, saying they'd only do so if they were paid $5 or if we fed them doughnuts. Several minutes later, another man came riding up on a bicycle, upset that the group had gotten into his belongings, accusing at least one person of wearing his wife's clothes.

A woman named Pam Hildebrandt did speak with us. She said she was only visiting the camp to help clean up, and that she was known as "mom" or "sister" to many, as she takes on the role of looking out for people. According to Hildebrandt, who said her husband works a construction job and donates to charity when he can, all most people want is a little help getting back on their feet.

"It's not really a lifestyle because that's the misconception with them - that they choose this. they don't choose this. it's that they don't have anybody to help them," said Hildebrandt, who lives between camps and plans to for the rest of the summer, allowing her and her husband to save money for an apartment later in the year.

As for the accusations about stolen bikes? Hildebrandt said neighbors have misunderstood what's going on. "They fix them for people that need it, just like a free service. It's just a way to help your neighbor," she said, explaining that the campers are basically doing pro bono bike maintenance.

Rhoades is convinced nothing could be further from the truth and said the evidence – stacks of high end bikes and children's bikes in various states of deconstruction, bins labeled "bike parts" and a dedicated work bench for bike maintenance – reveal what's really going on: a chop shop.

"They are very ordered in their thinking. They have a distinct plan for attack and stealing bicycles. they know how to make them serviceable and saleable. They have all the skills of somebody who would work in retail," Rhoades said.

"Most of them don't want to be there," said Lt. Jack Carson, Commander of Community Action Policing for the Anchorage Police Department, in a late afternoon interview. He strongly disagrees with the idea that individuals in the camps aren't facing significant addiction or mental health issues. He views the nearby thefts through the context of those epidemics.

The people in the homeless camps "don't have anything, they don't work. They have needs and that's how they survive," he said. Panhandling, thefts, the bicycle rings, all go to support either the drug habits and basic living needs of opiate addicts, or the daily living needs of the mentally ill, he said.

Enforcement is difficult. When officers go through camps, they'll check found objects like bikes and sometimes, firearms, for serial numbers. But often, items reported stolen aren't connected to a serial number, and a police officer then can't prove it's stolen. "Just because we think it's stolen doesn't give us the right to seize it," Carson said.

Carson said the crime reform known as Senate Bill 91 has had unintended consequences, letting people out of jail with promises of treatment on the outside, only to have individuals run into a lack of out-patient and in-patient treatment options. Ticketing or issuing fines isn't helpful, as individuals in the camps tend to ignore the citations and never paying the fines, defeating the purpose of deterrence, he said.

In July, the city will receive $150,000 dollars to help manage the homeless problem, money secured by Anchorage Assemblyman Christopher Constant. Rhoades is on a mission to make sure it's well spent.

"I think it is abundantly clear when you look at these sites, when you talk to the people in them, when you have the circumstantial evidence to the things that are in these sites, that they are very capable, very industrious, mentally organized people who are more than capable of competitive work," Rhoades said.

"The concern that's being raised by the neighborhood, that's what we're also observing. And so, we are attempting to address our camp notification process differently this year," Burke, the city's homeless coordinator, said.

The camp notification process is a mechanism on the home page of the municipal website that allows users to report a homeless camp. This summer, Burke is hoping for a more strategic approach, one that will look at the big picture and target larger clusters of camps in the most severe problem areas.

"If all we do is give lawful notices followed up by abatement's by Parks and Rec and then we don't prevent the cycle back, we're going to get all new encroachments and we're going to be starting all over again. We will be throwing good money after bad if we simply do the approach of tent by tent whack-a-mole," Rhoades said.

"We know if we just move all of those people from Chester Creek, they'll go to another location, and then we start all over again. What we are trying to do is place the interventions at the same time we do these areas so that we move people out of this area and in to housing," Burke said.

This summer, the city will double camp site clean-up teams, and work to connect housing-resistant individuals to social service resources. This summer the city will also have 120 options for housing for different types of people, Burke said.

Rhoades and others want the parks and trails reclaimed for the public as safe places to recreate with families.

While her approach is to get the people out of the park, Charles "Hans" Thompson, another midtown resident and longtime Alaskan, is interested in other methods. Like creating public trails through the main camp sites or thinning out the trees that create privacy and concealment. With transparency, campers are less likely to linger, Thompson said.

Both Rhoades and Thompson had scheduled appearances before the Anchorage Assembly Tuesday evening to propose their ideas.

Ultimately, she, Thompson, and concerned citizens from other neighborhoods are seeking the same outcome: reclaiming the city's parks and trails as safe places for Anchorage's families.

Rhoades wants a longer term homeless-to-housing plan, more housing options, and more accountability, by everyone. She wants to make sure the $150,000 is money well invested, not wasted.

Woven wood fences off an illegal campsite on May 22, 2018.

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