Northeast Anchorage residents air frustrations over Bronson plan for Centennial homeless camp

A man with a bullhorn speaking to a crowd
George Martinez Jr. speaks to gathered community members at an emergency meeting of the Northeast Community Council. (Laura Philion/Alaska Public Media)

A decision by Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration on Friday to allow people who are homeless to legally stay at a public campground has angered some neighbors and community leaders.

The city’s parks department cleared a homeless camp in the city’s Mountain View neighborhood on Friday. Then the Bronson administration abruptly canceled reservations at Centennial Campground, not far away in Northeast Anchorage, and distributed vouchers to the homeless that would allow them to camp there for two weeks for free.

That upset neighbors, who said they’d gotten no warning, and Anchorage’s Northeast Community Council held an emergency meeting Monday night. At the meeting, dozens of people gathered at a picnic pavilion, taking turns to talk about the city transitioning the campground into a place for homeless people to stay. Many said they felt blindsided, and had no chance to object.

“The one thing I know is that it was definitely the wrong decision to not inform the Community Council about their plans, about the potential emergencies they’re claiming, and to not work with us,” said George Martinez, Northeast Community Council president.

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Bronson Chief of Staff Alexis Johnson fielded questions. Johnson said the decision was rushed by a wildfire in the city last week — suspected to have been human-caused — and fears that the wooded Davis Park encampment in Mountain View posed a serious fire risk.

“One of the issues that we had that brought this to (our) attention was Davis Park,” Johnson said. “You know, that was a huge fire danger during that time. There was 53 tents less than a mile from here. So the quick decision from the administration was to put them somewhere safe.”

The opening of Centennial Campground to people who are homeless comes as the city prepares to close a mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena on Thursday. The Sullivan shelter was set up at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and housed more than 300 people some nights. As it winds down, about 130 people are currently sleeping there. Officials say a new shelter and navigation center in East Anchorage won’t be ready until the fall.

Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who represents East Anchorage, was at Monday night’s meeting and said he was frustrated about a lack of communication with the Anchorage Assembly. Dunbar said he found out last Thursday night about the plan to move people into the campground.

“They talked about abating Davis Park for weeks, but there was no mention of Centennial Park Campground,” Dunbar said. “And when they say this is about the fire danger, frankly, I don’t believe them. I think this is about the fact that they are closing the Sullivan Arena without a real plan for where folks are going to go.”

Some residents said they’re concerned for their safety, blaming a trio of break-ins that happened over the weekend on homeless campers now living at the Centennial Campground.

Others, like 15-year-old Denali Gamache, who said she is homeless, felt insulted by those claims. Gamache thinks Bronson should have notified the community sooner. But, she said, the Centennial Campground is an ideal location, despite the objections.

“I think people are being really — for lack of a better word — dumb,” she said. 

Gamache wanted those in attendance to know that the homeless are people, too, and there is no housing available for them. 

“Most of the people that are talking are from middle-class families,” she said. “They have never been homeless. They do not know what it’s like.”

Dunbar said the Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee is holding an emergency meeting Wednesday, and he expects a robust discussion.

“The fact of the matter is, the prior administration and the Assembly passed a plan to try and get people out of the Sullivan,” he said. “And when the mayor came into office, he threw that plan in the garbage, and we’ve been scrambling ever since.”

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