Anchorage’s legal department is working on a proposal to update the city’s policies for clearing unauthorized encampments.
Officials call that process abatement. The city’s current codes generally prohibit camping on public land and lay out the abatement process, which includes giving campers advance notice and temporarily storing their belongings after they’re displaced.
But so far this year, Anchorage authorities have been letting unauthorized camps stand. That’s part policy decision to shutter a mass shelter and instead deliver some basic services at camps, and part legal paralysis stemming from a major federal court case. The approach leaves campers in limbo, and their immediate neighbors frustrated and fearful about bad behavior impacting their quality of life, security and economic interests.
“The problem is, there is a sort of a fuzzy line with Martin v. Boise,” Municipal Attorney Anne Helzer said. She was briefing an Assembly committee on Wednesday about the administration’s work on a camp abatement policy.
Martin v. Boise is a 2018 federal court case where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned that punishing people for camping when they have nowhere else to go amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand in 2019.
“Martin v. Boise is complicated and it’s been misunderstood,” Helzer said. “It’s not a flat prohibition on the municipality’s ability to abate when there is no shelter space. But it’s also sort of unclear what the nuances are there.”
Right now, there are hundreds more people experiencing homelessness than there are shelter spaces in Anchorage. Homelessness experts estimate up to 800 people may be sleeping outdoors. Shelter spaces do open up regularly as people move into more stable housing or otherwise leave, but long waitlists mean they’re quickly filled, too.
In recent years, Anchorage authorities have cleared camps when shelter space was available. The Anchorage Police Department has a process for screening and deciding which camps are a priority.
Helzer and two assistant municipal attorneys at the briefing said the mayor’s administration is trying to come up with policies that are legally enforceable “to ensure urban cleanliness and livability” that also “continue and slightly expand the stretch of abatement.” “Slightly enlargening the spaces that people cannot be” was another lawyerly turn of phrase they used.
In recent weeks, some campers report that they are being asked to avoid setting up in city parks and greenbelts. Some of the biggest camps are on publicly owned vacant lots, like the site of the former Alaska Native Service Hospital at 3rd Avenue and Ingra Street, or the former archives site next to Cuddy Family Midtown Park, and a strip of woods along a snow dump across from Davis Park.
Other large encampments have popped up on park lands around the Chester Creek Trail and Chester Creek Sports Complex, but off trail in unmaintained areas. And some are in plain view on maintained park grounds.
Assistant Municipal Attorney Jessica Willoughby said that the city is comfortable clearing camps if someone is trespassing, like if they’ve broken into a city facility, or if a camp creates a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, say by obstructing a sidewalk.
“So this is the kind of the back and forth of, we’re not going to close all public spaces to camping, but we do recognize that Boise v. Martin doesn’t prohibit us across the board to closing some spaces to camping,” she said.
One change the administration says it will propose is to consolidate some abatement noticing requirements to a minimum of 10 days. The current codes require 10 to 15 days, depending on the situation.
The policy update is still a work in progress. Helzer said she is aiming to have the policy proposal in front of the Assembly for its May 23 meeting.
“Just so everyone understands, we’re literally looking at constitutional battles, whatever we do,” she added.
Assembly member Kevin Cross questioned if enforcing rules against camping was even the right approach.
“If somebody camped next to my house and they were clean and orderly and they were a blessing to the community, I wouldn’t have an issue with them,” he said. “It’s not the camping that’s the problem. It’s the trash, it’s the drugs, it’s the broken bottles, it’s the yelling, it’s running naked down the street, it’s excreting freely all over everything around you. It’s things that are already illegal.”
“I will tell you, a lot of things you have listed do not result in, like, jail time,” the city’s homelessness coordinator Alexis Johnson responded. “They just result in a citation. And there’s no max amount of citations that someone can get.”
“Fining people who don’t have money for housing doesn’t get you anywhere,” Cross said. “Ask me to grow hair.”
Cross is bald.