‘There’s no help’: Anchorage homeless campers face uncertain future as Centennial Campground closure looms

Notices of campsite closure have been posted around the Centennial Campground in Anchorage for two weeks, but many campers say they don’t know where they will go once the water and electricity is set to be shut off this Saturday. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Updated, 4 p.m. Thursday:

The city is preparing to move homeless residents from Centennial Campground to the Sullivan Arena on Saturday, according to a brief statement late Thursday afternoon from a spokesman for Mayor Dave Bronson. 

Original story:

On a muddy Wednesday morning, Raymond Marth dragged wood through Centennial Campground in Northeast Anchorage — just three days before the city planned to shut down the area for the winter. 

Marth is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who lived at the campground for a month and a half this summer, until a caseworker got him housed at a hotel. He said he still comes back to Centennial sometimes to help out young campers he’s met. 

“And I came back here because there’s kids over here,” Marth said. “Sometimes I bring pizza or $40 so they can get stuff. They’re young like my boy, so I got kind of attached to them while I was here.”

There are roughly 200 homeless residents currently staying at the campground — some sleep in tents, others in cars. The campground became a makeshift homeless camp in late June, after Mayor Dave Bronson closed the Sullivan Arena shelter, which operated for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three months later, with no official plan from the city, campers and service providers say they’re still in the dark on what will happen once the campground closes Saturday. 

Nineteen-year-old Gryffin Huselton helped Marth on Wednesday bring wood to a campsite. Huselton has stayed at Centennial for almost three months, since he and his cousin lost their apartment. Huselton said he was told that at the end of the week campers can no longer use the electricity and showers here. 

“We’re supposed to get kicked out,” Huselton said. “They’re going to turn off the power on the 30th. That means they’ll close the gates too.”

While signs pasted on trees around the campground indicate it will close on Friday, Sept. 30, city officials say the closure will occur Saturday, Oct. 1. 

Gryffin Huselton stands outside the tent he has shared with his cousin in Centennial Campground in Anchorage. Huselton says they moved to Centennial after losing their apartment three months ago, but he has plans to move into more permanent housing. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

Huselton, the 19-year-old, said his future is a little clearer than other campers. He said a caseworker from Covenant House is set to pick him up before the campground closes and move him to housing. But he’s not sure what will happen to the others.

“Some are weary,” Huselton said. “They’re going to try to come back after the camp closes, like they’re going to survive here still. Like it’s going to work out. I don’t know how that’s going to work. I really don’t know how that’s going to work.”

It’s not just campers that are left unsure about where they’ll go. Local nonprofit Bean’s Cafe has been providing three meals a day at the campsite since the Sullivan Arena shelter closed. Bean’s CEO Lisa Sauder said that once the campground closes, her group may have to move its food trailer to just outside the gates. 

“I want to check in with the Municipality to make sure they don’t have any issues with that,” Sauder said. “But we’ll probably move it up near where the office is. And we’ll just… day by day.”

Sauder said, by Wednesday, she had not heard any word from city officials about their plans for campers. While she’s committed to continuing food service, she said, she’s concerned what a loss of electricity could mean for the campers. 

“People won’t be able to charge their cell phone, which means they can’t connect with their case manager or a navigator that’s maybe working to get them housing,” Sauder said. “They can’t check in with their probation officer if they have one. They can’t charge their ankle monitor. There’s some real unintended consequences. I certainly understand the need to shut the water off before the pipes freeze, but I would hope that the power could remain on until people can be sheltered.”

Homeless residents currently camping in Anchorage’s Centennial Campground lit a fire on Wednesday morning. (Elyssa Loughlin/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Assembly passed an emergency shelter plan on Monday that involves using the Sullivan once again as shelter for up to 150 people. Additionally, the Assembly opted to use the former Golden Lion hotel as housing, as well as expand operations at existing providers, like Covenant House and Brother Francis shelters. Bean’s is also set to expand its operations, but since Bronson hasn’t indicated whether he’ll use the Assembly’s plan yet, Sauder said they’re left waiting.

“We’re starting to stand up a 40-person shelter,” Sauder said. “I need to hire 16 people, but I can’t extend an employment offer until I have a contract.”

Bronson spokesman Hans Rodvik said on Saturday, city Parks and Recreation officials will begin cleaning and winterizing the campground while working with Health Department staff to “transport those who need shelter elsewhere.”

Rodvik didn’t specify where campers would be transported to. He said the mayor’s staff is “continuing to conduct due diligence and evaluation of the Assembly’s Emergency Cold Weather Shelter plan.”

While campers wait, Marth, the former camper who returned to help out his former neighbors, said he’s not holding out any hope.

“I’m not hopeful for anybody here,” Marth said. “What are they going to do, there’s no help. I don’t see nothing happening over here. What are they doing?”

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