Fairbanks City Council OKs measure authorizing removal, cleanup of homeless camps

The Fairbanks City Council approved an ordinance Monday that provides a legal basis for city police and public works employees to remove homeless camps in unauthorized areas on public land.

Police Chief Eric Jewkes told the council the ordinance is needed to allow officers to evict homeless people from illegal camps and remove and clean up the sites.

“For years and years, we’ve done this,” he said, “but there’s been so legal backing for it.”

Jewkes says the measure will authorize police and other city personnel to respond to complaints about homeless camps that are causing problems.

“We have homicides,” he said. “We have sexual assaults. We have serious assaults. We have other criminal problems, especially when they (the camps) get too large.”

Fairbanks Housing and Homeless Coordinator Mike Sanders says the ordinance also will help protect the more vulnerable residents of the camps.

“I think it’s incredibly important that the police department has the ability to help these people out of that spot,” he said.

Sanders estimates about 50 people camp through the winter around Fairbanks. He says many don’t want to stay in shelters and just want to be left alone. Some have problems with addiction and behavioral health issues. And others end up in the camps just because they’re down on their luck.

“Most people experiencing homelessness in Fairbanks is (due to) under-employment or unemployment,” Sanders said. He says for 51 percent of the Fairbanks area’s homeless, “that was their only barrier – underemployment and unemployment.”

The ordinance was introduced by Mayor Jim Matherly and is modeled after a measure recently approved by Anchorage. It authorizes police to give residents of the camps 10 days’ notice before they and their belongings are removed. In cases where the camps present a more immediate danger, 72-hour notices may be given. The measure requires camp residents to be given up to 30 minutes to pack up.

Jewkes says he appreciates a provision in the measure that authorizes the city to store their belongings until they’re reclaimed within 30 days.

“We know they’re people,” the chief said. “We know that even though it may be stuff and it may look like junk, it’s all they have. And it’s important to them and we don’t take that for granted.”

City Public Works Director Jeff Jacobson says his staff takes that humane approach when they’re called out to clean up the camps.

“It’s a very sensitive matter when you’re dealing with people who are at that position in their life, removing what little they have from their campsite,” Jacobson said.

Before council members passed the ordinance, they approved an amendment proposed by newly elected Councilwoman Shoshana Kun that deleted language that stated the illegal camps “tend to foster drug and alcohol use.” Her amendment changed the language so it simply says the camps “tend to foster illegal activities,” to de-stigmatize the use of intoxicants that some homeless people don’t indulge in.

“I just want to get the stigma away from drug and alcohol use,” Kun said.

The four council members present approved the ordinance. Jerry Cleworth and Valerie Therrien were absent.

Also Monday, the council approved applying for a nearly $34,000 grant from the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation to help the city Fire Department pay for live-saving equipment. The grant requires no city match.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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