Esteban Diaz spent Friday morning tying a large tarp above his tent and a picnic table at his camp space at the Centennial Campground in East Anchorage.
“That keeps my items from getting wet,” Diaz said. “I keep two tarps because even if you just have a rainfly, you’ll still get wet.”
Diaz is one of more than 180 people staying at the campground, which turned into a makeshift homeless camp in late June, after Mayor Dave Bronson started waiving camping fees at the site and closed the city’s biggest shelter.
Since then, Anchorage summer has turned from hot and dry to what feels like constant rain, with more rain in the forecast. The weather has made for wet and muddy conditions at Centennial.
Diaz said the Salvation Army — which took over client coordination at the camp last month — is trying to help. It has provided the tents and the tarps, as well as firewood. He said there’s just a few more things he could use.
“Besides that, just good rain gear,” Diaz said. “A good heater to keep everything dry. Because I’ve got electricity, I’ve got power. We got power, but no heater.”
Nearby, Luis Garcia just moved into the campground, after camping around town for the last two months. He said people with camping experience like himself and Diaz are faring well, despite the rain. But others are struggling.
“Especially the old folks and old ladies right there,” Garcia said. “They don’t know how to set up the tent. They got soaking wet.”
One of the campers having a rougher experience is Kenneth Walker Jr. He described the past several weeks as a “never-ending battle” with the weather.
“A lot of my stuff is still wet from when I ended up leaving,” Walker said. “And somehow, wind blew the tarp, rain got in the tent. And just a struggle to keep up with the laundry, trying to keep those clean.”
Walker said he recently learned that the Salvation Army is helping swap out campers’ wet clothes and blankets with clean, dry ones. Denice Delgado is Anchorage social services director for the Salvation Army. She said she’s been working with city officials to better set up campsites for the rain.
“Especially for the individuals that aren’t on actual rock bed, where it can drain,” Delgado said. “So they are bringing in pallets that we can now lift people up off the ground. And so we’re going to be lifting it up with pallet, tarp, and then the tent on top.”
Walker said it’s not just the rain he’s worried about, but also planning ahead for the winter. He said he needs to start stocking up on extra blankets and propane.
“Maybe getting some more stuff to insulate the tent too,” he said. “That’s what I was thinking about this morning, just because of how quick the heat was leaving the tent.”
Roger Branson is concerned about the approaching winter, too. He’s on the city’s Homeless Prevention and Response System Advisory Council and is often at Centennial helping connect campers to supplies and resources. He said having a winter plan is a critical and immediate need.
“There absolutely needs to be a winter plan now,” Branson said. “Last month would’ve been nicer. A year ago, we did have a plan and it was wholly rejected and has not been replaced. And it’s been a very frustrating year.”
The city says it plans to build a new shelter, but it won’t be ready until at least November.
Assembly members have criticized the Bronson administration for not having a winter sheltering plan yet. They recently approved creating a task force to come up with a plan.
Branson said the plan — no matter who creates it — needs input from the people who have been camping outside.
“These people in camps know where their help comes from,” Branson said. “They know who they can trust, and we need to listen to them. We need to let them make their own choices.”
Back at Diaz’s tent, he said he thinks he’ll be prepared to continue camping after the first snowfall.
“I’m sticking around here,” Diaz said. “Ain’t nothing for me. Winter… I’ve lived in 70-below zero, 50-below zero in Fairbanks. So this for me outside, this doesn’t do nothing. I mean, I’ve got snow gear. I’ve got a parka. I’ve got Arctic gear. Once you’re outside for two weeks, you climatize.”
As for Garcia, he’s hoping he’ll only have to hold out at Centennial for a couple months more.
“I’m studying to get my commercial driver’s license, and I’m going to get a job as a truck driver and live in the truck,” Garcia said and laughed. “Probably try to finance one truck myself.”
He said he plans to pay for the license and any fees when his Permanent Fund dividend drops into his account next month.