The sun filtered through the thick spruce trees at Centennial Campground in East Anchorage on Monday morning as Angel and Jennifer Luna sipped soda at a wooden picnic table in front of a small gray camping tent.
Angel Luna said he and Jennifer moved here from an illegal site just a few hundred yards away over the weekend where they were constantly worried about theft and harassment.
“The feeling of — it’s okay for us to be here,” he said, “It’s a good feeling.”
The gravel campsite is one of dozens at the campground that the city started using on Friday as an area for people who are homeless to camp legally. It’s a last-minute stopgap that Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration set up to give campers a place to live outside of the city’s limited indoor shelter options. The 84-spot campground normally charges about $25 a night for tourists and Alaskans to set up their tents or park their RVs. Those reservations were canceled through July.
The decision to transform the campground is drawing ire from some local community leaders who say it happened without any input. But, people staying at the camp, like the Lunas, said they’re happy to be there. There’s regular security patrols, electricity for charging their phones, showers and trash service. Plus, there’s no threat of police asking them to leave.
“They just asked me if I was homeless, and to pick a spot. That was it,” said Cole Cerutti, another camper at Centennial.
Meanwhile, Northeast Anchorage residents aired frustrations and anger at an emergency community council meeting over the city opening the campground to people who are homeless. Also, local Assembly members Forrest Dunbar and Pete Petersen and state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who represents the area, have demanded the Bronson administration reconsider its decision. In a letter to mayor, they said it was made without neighborhood input, or even informing the local community council. They said a sudden influx of perhaps hundreds of people could quickly exceed the number of campsites available. And they said it potentially violated city code which prohibits camping at city-run sites for more than seven straight days.
But city officials say opening a space for sanctioned camping was necessary to prevent forest fires in an unusually hot and dry summer after they cleared out a large illegal camp in the Mountain View neighborhood on Friday. Also, the Centennial campground could be another place for people to go when the Sullivan Arena shelter closes on Thursday which, advocates say, could leave about 75 people without anywhere to sleep.
Some advocates say having a sanctioned campsite is long needed, and they hope the option can extend longer than the 14 days that officials promised campers.
“We would like to see a long-term sanction camp,” said Roger Branson with the Houseless Resource Advisory Council, a grassroots advocacy group for homeless people.
His group proposed opening Centennial for long-term houseless campers last year, but the pitch went nowhere at the time. He said the Bronson administration didn’t reach out to his group before setting up the site.
It’s unclear how long the city will use Centennial as a place for people who are homeless to stay. Some campers there said they were given vouchers to stay for two weeks, and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation said reservations for people looking to camp or RV there were canceled through July. But officials with the Bronson administration have not responded to questions about when it will again close the campground to people who are homeless and what the plan is after that.
Former Assembly member John Weddleton has been studying authorized campsites for people who are homeless, and said some areas around the country are giving them a go. He said they are a way to increase safety and sanitation for people for whom indoor shelters don’t work, and they require relatively few resources.
He recently visited two camps in Missoula, Montana, including one without sobriety requirements to get in, and said there are cautionary tales.
At the city-authorized campground that didn’t have any requirements about sobriety or drug use, he said, leaders acknowledged they hadn’t adequately managed the campground, which had soon filled over capacity.
“If you go look at these, it’s horrible, it’s just a total mess,” he said.
But he said it’s not any worse than illegal camp areas, and there were on-site medical providers and regular security patrols.
For people like Brian Vaughan, it’s not worth it to move to Centennial, despite the promise of showers and security patrols.
He’s staying at an illegal camp in the Mountain View neighborhood that city workers are trying to clear. His main reason for not moving: he fears he’ll have to pack up his piles of bicycle parts and tools again in just a few weeks at Centennial if the city returns it to its original purpose.
“There’s no answer to the problem at hand to have a place to go. We’ll be right back in the same situation as here, just in Muldoon,” he said on Monday afternoon, standing in front of his tent.
Others camped near Vaughan said they also were planning to stay, including a mother who said she needed to be closer to Mountain View, where her kids go to summer school.
But some campers had started packing up to move to Centennial after hearing from friends about the conditions there. Staff with the city Parks and Recreation Department helped transport and unload campers’ supplies at Centennial throughout the day on Monday.
Service providers like Bean’s Cafe and Covenant House were also making the rounds at Centennial, delivering meals and connecting with clients.
Mike Braniff, who oversees safety on parks and trails for the city, said the campground had starting filling up over the weekend.
On Friday, the day it opened, there were four people staying at it. As of Monday morning, 49 of the 84 spaces were taken. He estimated around 80 people were staying there.
He said the campground is still open to the public to walk through and to service providers, but it’s not taking reservations at least through July.
People like Angel and Jennifer Luna are hoping that’s enough time. They lost their jobs as DoorDash drivers after their cars were impounded for unpaid fines.
They said they planned to spend Monday biking around town looking for jobs so they could save up for cars and rent. But first, they planned to use the campground’s showers.