As Centennial Park continues as Anchorage homeless camp, advocates worry about resources and safety

James Keele starts a fire using a makeshift burner at Centennial Campground. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Roughly 200 houseless people are staying at Anchorage’s Centennial Park. And advocates are worried about whether they’re receiving the resources and care they need.

At the end of June, the city closed the mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena, and began moving the people who were staying there to various locations, including the campground. The mayor’s office insists that the campground is not a part of the city’s response to homelessness. 

Roger Branson chairs the Anchorage Houseless Resources Advocacy Council. The group has been staffing a tent at the campground with food, water and other resources. Last week, Branson said campers found conditions to be “deplorable.” He said conditions have improved since then.

“A very positive conversation that I had with the mayor was the explanation that it’s not what I perceive or what he perceives,” Branson said. “It’s what the people in the camp perceive and how they’re viewing life.”

One immediate change Branson noted over the weekend was the lifting of the city’s burn ban. He said Parks and Recreation officials began distributing firewood to campers. 

“So for the campers themselves, psychologically, that was a huge deal,” Branson said. “To be able to have fires to gather around socially and to dry out.”

READ MORE: Community council dismayed by no-show from Bronson team at meeting about homeless at Anchorage campground

Campers James Keele and Jimmy Hartley made use of the rescinding of the ban, working to boil some water for coffee using a makeshift burner and some kerosene.

“There she goes,” Keele exclaimed as water bubbled in what looked like a metal dog bowl.

As officials work to organize resources for homeless people, safety has been a concern for both volunteers and the campers using the area. Anchorage police were called to the campground Sunday night due to a fight between two men. A police spokeswoman said officers ended up using a stun gun multiple times on one of the men after he attacked police. The man was taken into custody. Branson said he’s happy things didn’t escalate beyond that. 

“I was really concerned because the campers themselves were looking to defend themselves with what they could,” Branson said. “The clubs and knives and stuff like that were getting brandished. We were able to nip that in the bud and it was a community effort, so I’m really pleased about that.”

Branson said a camp resident died Thursday night from an overdose. Anchorage police say the woman was found unresponsive and had been given Narcan. 

Branson said several other people overdosed the same day, but they recovered after receiving Narcan. Corey Allen Young, a spokesman with the mayor’s office, said the city is working to address safety concerns with 24/7 security at the campground.

Outside of Centennial Park’s designated campsites, many tents are scattered around the area. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Ensuring that campers have enough basic supplies is another issue. Branson said his group has received a bunch of individual donations, from tents to bulk food.

“If the need arises for us to start cooking onsite, it appears we will have that capacity, which greatly alleviates the concerns of Bean’s possibly pulling out,” Branson said. 

Bean’s Cafe was on-site handing out food, but the future availability for basic services is up in the air since the Mayor’s administration hasn’t said how long homeless people will stay at the campground. Bean’s Cafe Executive Director Lisa Sauder said funding to serve food has all come from donations.  

“We can continue to seek support from the general community and from businesses, and that’s something we’re doing right now,” Sauder said. “But at some point, to sustain it, if it is going to be a longer term effort, we would certainly welcome some additional funding from another source.” 

Mayor Dave Bronson announced Tuesday that the Salvation Army would be handling on-site client care at the campground. That includes connecting people with various resources, including food, case management, supplies and donations. That’s after the city’s Homeless Prevention Response System Advisory Council said it wouldn’t make those connections anymore, citing safety concerns and the fact that the campground isn’t part of the official city homelessness response. 

Sauder said she’s excited to see the Salvation Army taking that role. 

“Parks and Rec has done a great job. They’re on site, trying to keep the camp clean, keep things orderly,” Sauder said. “But that’s not their normal occupation, so to speak. So I think having another service provider that has the capacity to do that and willing to do the work is wonderful.”

Rodney Reeves is one of more than 200 houseless people using the Centennial Campground. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

While safety continues to be an issue, overall, campers have mixed results when it comes to getting basic needs met. Keele, the camper from earlier, said assistance from the city has been hit-or-miss. On the one hand, he said Mayor Bronson personally helped him get supplies. 

“The mayor was like, ‘do you need something?’ And I said I needed some rope,” Keele recalled. “He was like, hold on,’ and he went in there and looked for it. Couldn’t find it and went to the store and personally bought me some and had it brought back to me.”

On the other hand, he feels that sometimes security is very strict. Keele has been a regular at the camp for a month and said when he tried to enter the camp four minutes past the closing time Sunday night, he was refused. 

Keele ended up spending the night in his car. He said he’s hoping to leave soon and has plans to meet with local housing agencies so he can get surgery for his back that he’s put off.  

But other campers say they’re concerned for people who want to stay long term. 

“What’s going to happen in November?” camper Rodney Reeves asked. “I mean there’s a lot of people that’re going to be stuck out here. Do they have arrangements? You know, last year, the Sullivan knew that they were going to be closing. But why weren’t arrangements made then?”

The city currently has a plan for a navigation center and shelter to open on Tudor Road. Young said it will be open in the fall, but couldn’t give a more specific timeline.

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Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org.