Outdoor deaths in Anchorage spiked in June, coinciding with sharp increase in unsheltered homelessness

A homeless camp in Mountain View (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Six people died outside in Anchorage in June, their bodies found in city parks or just off city streets. 

The recent deaths include a woman who was found outside of the abandoned Sam’s Club building in South Anchorage, 30-year-old Allan Dahl whose decomposing body was found at Russian Jack park, and 47-year-old John Prunes who was found in the woods by a church on the east side of town. 

“He was an angel,” said Rita Prunes, his sister-in-law. “He would do anything in the world for you. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”

Prunes said she doesn’t know how her brother-in-law died. But he’d been homeless in Anchorage for years bouncing between shelters and outdoor camps.

His death on June 26 is part of what homeless advocates and service providers fear is a trend. This June, the city saw its highest monthly outdoor death count in at least the past two years, according to data from the Anchorage Police Department.

It’s not clear exactly what caused the higher number of outdoor deaths, since the police data doesn’t list causes. But some advocates and homeless service providers say they’re worried the increase was caused by a rise in the number of homeless people who started camping outdoors in June as the city wound down its largest shelter at the Sullivan Arena.

“Some of it’s just math,” said Jessica Parks, who oversees housing at RurAL CAP, a nonprofit that helps find housing for homeless people. “If there are more people who are unsheltered, there are going to be more unsheltered deaths.”

Six outdoor deaths in one month is about four times higher than the average monthly number of people found dead outside in the city over the past two years. Outdoor deaths dropped to three in July, but it’s still about twice the average monthly total. 

Homeless service providers and advocates say maxed-out shelter space and high numbers of campers are likely to continue. A new planned shelter won’t be ready until winter, according to the most recent reports by Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration. 

At the same time, federal rental relief programs are ending, pushing more people into homelessness. 

Rev. Michael Burke of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in East Anchorage said he’s especially worried about what’s to come as temperatures drop. He said in his two decades working with unsheltered homeless people, most outdoor deaths in Anchorage typically occur in shoulder seasons. 

“We’re 60 days out from an incredible humanitarian crisis in our city,” he said. 

Tyler Sachtleben, a city health department spokesperson, said in an email that the department didn’t want to speculate about what caused the deaths in June. He did not respond to questions about whether the department was tracking the increase in outdoor deaths and would make any changes to address it. He also disputed claims by the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness that outdoor camping increased this summer, saying it’s hard to measure. 

The Anchorage coalition declined an interview request for this story, but sent a statement emphasizing the need to find housing solutions in time for winter. 

The city opened Centennial Campground in mid-June to homeless campers. It brought in dozens of people by bus who had stayed at the Sullivan Arena shelter and had nowhere else to go when it closed. At one point in July, the city said more than 200 people were staying at the campground. 

pople stand in line by a bus
Sullivan guests wait on a bus to take them to Centennial Campground on June 30 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Advocates point to a host of risks to camping outdoors, even at sanctioned sites like Centennial. Campers might not have reliable phones to call 911 for medical emergencies like heart attacks, strokes or epileptic seizures. It’s harder for them to access warm meals, especially during a citywide burn ban throughout most of June. There’s added stress from hot or rainy weather. And campers often don’t have easy access to Narcan, a medicine that can reduce opioid overdoses.

One person reportedly overdosed at Centennial in July.  

“It’s a very different situation when you have people in an emergency shelter where you can kind of lay eyes on everybody, and have staff doing patrols and doing bed checks,” said Lisa Sauder, director of Bean’s Cafe, the city’s main soup kitchen. 

Sauder said when Bean’s Cafe operated the shelter at the Sullivan Arena, staff carried Narcan and administered it “numerous times a week” to clients. About 250 people died of opioid overdoses in Alaska in 2021, more than a 70% increase from the year before, according to the state health department, which attributes the rise to the ongoing fentanyl crisis. 

The state medical examiner said two of the six people who died in June died of drug overdoses from multiple drugs. One of the three people who died in July had “pneumonia due to the toxic effects of methamphetamine.”

It’s not clear how many of the people were homeless at the time of their deaths since police data doesn’t specify housing status. 

Advocates say it’s hard to know the true death toll of unsheltered homelessness, since many people die after being taken to the hospital. They say not having housing can lead to self-destructive behaviors like suicide or drug and alcohol use. 

John Prunes was originally from Mountain Village and bounced around homeless camps and shelters throughout the past few years, family said. (Photo courtesy Jamie Chiklak)

Family of John Prunes said they still don’t know the official cause of his death, but said he liked to drink. 

Prunes worked as a commercial fisherman during the summers in Bristol Bay and stayed at homeless shelters and outdoor camps in Anchorage when his money ran out, family members said.  

“He would go to Brother Francis, he would go to the Sullivan and he would camp out,” said Rita Prunes, his sister-in-law. 

Prunes said she worries about the city’s resources for homeless people. 

“I think the city should be able to open more places. There’s places out there standing empty, they can open it up for them people, for the homeless people,” she said. 

Service providers agree. They say building more housing or shelter capacity is likely the only way to reduce the rate of outdoor deaths. 

“Ultimately, we need to have shelter available for everyone seeking it,” said Sauder of Bean’s Cafe.

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Lex Treinen is covering the state Legislature for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@gmail.com.

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