State Fish and Game officials are raising public safety concerns over the large houseless population at Anchorage’s Centennial Park campgrounds. The biggest issue: bears.
The animals have been a problem at Centennial Campground the past few weeks, since the city waived camping fees and directed houseless people there.
Following reports of bears getting into tents, biologists shot a female black bear and two cubs, as well as an unrelated male black bear, at the campground July 6. Fish and Game area biologist Dave Battle said Alaska Wildlife Troopers shot a fifth bear Wednesday morning.
“I understand there’s another sow with a cub that is also sniffing around,” Battle said. “She may or may not have entered tents. We’re not sure yet, so we have another possible situation coming up.”
More than 200 houseless people are currently camping at Centennial.
The problem stems from campers leaving food in their tents, Battle said. Ordinarily, city Parks and Recreation staff are able to closely monitor campers at the campgrounds and evict people for not following safety guidelines, but since houseless people were moved to the site, the ability to monitor and police the campsites is more difficult, he said.
One reason is due to a hesitancy from staff to evict houseless people, and the other is because security can’t search peoples’ tents.
“We know that there’s food in a lot of the tents in Centennial, and there doesn’t seem to be anything anybody can do about it,” Battle said.
City officials moved many houseless people to the Centennial Campground after the Sullivan Arena mass shelter closed at the end of June, and after clearing homeless camps in Davis Park and Chester Creek.
In an interview with Alaska Public Media on Wednesday, Mayor Dave Bronson said the campground was a safer place for houseless people than the Sullivan or the two camping areas that were cleared out.
“This is a big improvement over Davis Park,” Bronson said. “We are providing hot and cold running water. We’re providing showers, we’re providing toilet paper. We’re providing a campsite. Volunteer groups came in and actually provided tents. We’ve got a place now where we’ve got everyone centralized where we can see everyone.”
But Fish and Game wasn’t consulted by the mayor’s administration before the city moved to consolidate houseless people at Centennial, Battle said.
“The location of Centennial Campground, and having a lot of people experiencing homelessness in that campground,” Battle said, “it’s right next to a never-ending supply of bears.”
The bears are only deemed threats when they start to rummage through campers’ tents, Battle said, adding that he’s worried about the long-term feasibility of a large houseless population at the campground.
“Every bear we kill is just a Band-Aid,” Battle said. “The next week, another bear’s going to find that campground and we’re going to be right back in that same situation. Bears are going to try to come into tents, and those people that are there are going to be put into danger.”
Battle suggested that houseless people should be directed to another location. If that isn’t possible, then service providers in the area need to drastically increase the amount of bear-resistant containers they’re distributing to campers, he said.
“I know I see bear resistant containers there,” Battle said. “So like I say, the staff there are doing the best job that they can, and they can supply the bear resistant containers. I don’t know if they can get everyone to use the bear resistant containers.”
Bronson spokesman Corey Allen Young said there are currently bear resistant containers throughout the campground, some of which were recently purchased by the city. Parks staff conduct hourly sweeps to pick up trash and food, he said.
As for long-term sheltering options, Mayor Bronson said his administration hopes they can begin housing people at the new navigation center in mid-October. Construction on that project has not yet started, he said.