With Anchorage’s shelters full, homeless campers eke out life in limbo

A woman and her dog walk around a yellow van
Breanna Witzke and her dog Nikko walk around a perimeter she and a friend were building out of scavenged shipping pallets and plastic fencing around her van and tent site on a vacant lot next to Cuddy Family Midtown Park on May 11, 2023. Witzke said her van had been broken into twice recently. She intends to build a temporary campground on the lot for homeless campers, similar to recreational drive-up campgrounds. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

Encampments in public spaces around Anchorage have been growing since the city’s biggest shelter scaled down and the weather warmed up. 

City codes generally prohibit camping on public land, but when there isn’t enough housing, the city’s power to clear camps is limited. Within these sites, officials haven’t publicly said what they’ll police. That leaves a lot of people living outdoors in limbo. 

Like Breeanna Witzke, who’s been pushing the boundaries. The 43-year-old has been frequenting Anchorage Assembly meetings lately, where she confronts officials with some of the most immediate issues affecting people experiencing homelessness. At the last one, she called homelessness and drug use a massive problem. 

“You guys are going through the red tape, bit by bit,” she said. “And I’m here to tell you, I am from the street, I am in the street. I am jobless. I am homeless. And I am this way because I am here to help you guys.” 

Technically, she isn’t homeless right now. She said she recently got a grant that covers rent for a place in Chugiak. But lately she’s been living out of a van and tent in a vacant lot next to Cuddy Family Midtown Park. Dozens more tents are pitched in and around the immediate area. She’s set up on the gravel footprint where a new National Archives building was once planned. 

Witzke said she sees herself as a sort of guide for surviving street life. Lately, she’s been trying to quickly build a more secure, temporary space on the vacant lot for homeless people to live that she envisions looking a lot like a recreational drive-up campground. 

Witzke is operating in a big, gray area. Under a federal court ruling, authorities generally can’t enforce no-camping laws when low-barrier shelter spaces are full, which they are. At the same time, Witzke and hundreds of other people living out of cars and tents in Anchorage don’t really know what will or won’t be tolerated. 

For example, Witzke’s been scavenging and stacking shipping pallets on the lot to make three-sided stalls for tent sites. As she was working on them last week, a municipal parks employee pulled up in a pickup truck. 

“Um, yeah, no, this isn’t happening with the pallets,” parks employee Nicole Limberg said. “No pallet houses. No concrete slabs.”

Witzke asked for the employee’s name, and she pulled away without responding. 

“It’s not uncommon to see some sort of outdoor shelter that’s something more than a tent, built out of wood or something else,” said Director of Anchorage Parks and Recreation Mike Braniff. He said he doesn’t have a set policy for how to handle those situations. 

“We’re working on what a more official answer to the question will be for the summer,” he said. 

Witzke wasn’t deterred. Later that day, she was brainstorming ideas about what legalized camping should look like with a room full of officials and nonprofit leaders, during a meeting of the city’s Sanctioned Camps Community Task Force.  It’s one of several local policymaking bodies working on housing, temporary shelter and other homelessness solutions this summer. 

Felix Rivera chairs the Assembly’s Housing and Homelessness Committee, and is one of the driving forces behind several of these efforts. Rivera said there is legal wiggle room to clear camps under certain conditions.

“For example, you can’t camp in parks,” he said. “And so, is the administration going to enforce that provision? And are they going to abate people out of parks? Those are the questions that I’m asking the administration to really be public about. What is their policy going to be this summer? Cause I don’t know.” 

Rivera said the campers and community at large need clarity. 

“But until then, it’s sort of like a free for all,” he said. 

For now, the plan is to meet the campers where they are. Teams from Parks and Recreation are visiting known sites twice a week to clean up trash. Several service organizations and volunteers are also regularly providing food, basic medical care and maintaining ties to social services and housing waitlists. 

An Anchorage Parks and Recreation employee with Healthy Spaces picks up trash around a encampment in a vacant lot next to Cuddy Family Midtown Park on May 9, 2023. The crews visit known encampments twice a week. Drug paraphernalia is common. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

Rivera said the camping situation so far isn’t the humanitarian crisis that developed at Centennial Campground last summer, where people were bused to after a mass shelter closed last July

“I don’t think it’s to that same level, but we’re still facing issues and you know, we still got to figure out what the plan is,” Rivera said. 

Witzke is pushing ahead with her campground, and says she’s even gotten gifts from individuals in the community to help cover her tab at Home Depot.

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him at jhsieh@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremy here.

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