Homeless man dies in Fairbanks during 50-below wind chill

Haze above a spruce forest
The Fairbanks skyline in February 2022 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

A Fairbanks man who was living in a tent in the woods was found frozen to death during last week’s extreme cold snap. 

Troopers identified the man in an online dispatch as 55-year-old Charles Akiviana of Fairbanks. They said they got a call on Friday morning from a man staying at a hotel off Old Airport Way reporting that he’d discovered a frozen body in a snowbank.

A National Weather Service meteorologist says temperatures dropped to about 32 degrees below zero on Thursday evening, with Friday morning’s wind chill at 54 below.

Troopers and Alaska Bureau of Investigation officers responding to the call sent Akiviana’s body to the state medical examiner’s office for an autopsy. They found a tent in the woods nearby containing his belongings, including a wallet.

City housing coordinator Brynn Butler said her office wasn’t aware of an encampment in the area, but she learned Tuesday that there are about a half-dozen tents there.

“I will be sure to reach out to any of our people who bring out services to encampments, and see if we can verify the number of people there and get them into housing, like emergency shelter,” she said.

Butler and another Fairbanks homeless advocate says that depending on the outcome of the autopsy, Akiviana’s death could be the first case of a homeless person in Fairbanks freezing to death this year. But Butler said she can’t compare that to last year’s figures, because the city hasn’t tracked those fatalities.

“So I’m working on trying to figure out how we can get an accurate number of people who’ve passed away from exposure while being un-housed,” Butler said.

Butler said the city’s only chance to collect data that would reflect exposure deaths would come from an annual count that’s conducted nationwide on Jan. 30, for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“So we’re getting ready to do that again for January,” she said.

Brenda McFarlane, who works as a homeless advocate for the city, said the poor state of health of many homeless people also complicates efforts to track their causes of death.

“It seems to be fairly rare for someone to actually die from exposure in a camp outside, like this,” McFarlane said. “Often, people would pass away from chronic illnesses.”

McFarlane coordinates the city’s Crisis Now program, which promotes mental-health services for the homeless. She said the need for those services is growing, based on the caseload of a downtown facility operated by a company called RI International.

“They’ve been seeing quite a few people — over 200 in November,” she said.

McFarlane and Butler say it’s especially important to work with Fairbanks-area nonprofits to assist the homeless during the winter.

 “When we have temperatures like this, there are many agencies that are reaching out and telling people about resources,” McFarlane said.

Those agencies include the Fairbanks Housing and Homeless Coalition, an umbrella group that brings together several other organizations including the Fairbanks Rescue Mission and the Bread Line, which provides free breakfasts and lunches. Additionally, The Door and Fairbanks Native Association offer services to homeless youth.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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