Anchorage’s bureaucratic seesawing is pushing people out of this camp — at least for a few weeks

A woman and dog by a tent surrounded by bins and bags of stuff
A dog named Thor keeps watch at a campsite on a vacant lot in Midtown Anchorage as Kyla Freidenbloom packs up belongings on June 6, 2023. City workers posted signs in the area on May 24 that said they would begin clearing camps soon. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

A park in Midtown Anchorage has become a focal point in the city’s response to homelessness this summer. 

Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration is in the process of clearing campers out of Cuddy Family Midtown Park in the name of public safety ahead of a music festival. The Anchorage Assembly just pushed to allow camping next to the park — but after the festival. And at the same time, civil rights lawyers are fighting to let campers stay put. 

The bureaucratic seesawing comes about a month after the city closed its winter shelters, sending hundreds of people outside with tents to camp, but without clarity about where they’d be tolerated. The number of tents ballooned at the vacant, city-owned lot next to Cuddy Park, one of several sites across the city. Some campers set up in the park itself. 

Now, the city wants them to leave — at least for a few weeks. The city posted notices on May 24 saying it planned to clear campsites out of the entire park area. Lots of campers left on their own. On Tuesday, city workers loaded debris and bag after bag of garbage onto flatbed trucks at the shrinking homeless encampment. 

But Kyla Freidenbloom will be among the last to go. She and her companions had a wheelbarrow and shopping carts loaded up with stuff near their campsite. They had waist-high stacks of plastic bins, piles of tote bags, backpacks and rolled canvases staged for the move. A little dog named Thor hopped on top of one pile to keep watch. 

“This is our house,” Freidenbloom said. 

She had been camping in this spot for months, well before the numbers swelled. 

“And you want us out for a concert, and then we can come back — it’s supposed to be turned into a sanctioned area,” she said. “So I don’t get it. But it’s politics. You know, that’s just the way it goes. But I’m hanging in there. I’m in better spirits than I thought I would be.”

Marcus Salazar is part of Freidenbloom’s group. The plan, he said, was to haul all of their stuff in multiple trips to a new spot to camp.  

“We’re the lepers, you know?” the easygoing, curly haired 20-something said. “They don’t want the rich people seeing all the homeless people so – it is what it is. I understand they’re coming to spend money but it’s not like, you know, we all have disease, you know? So it’s a little messed up.” 

City workers haven’t been telling campers where else they can set up, and waitlists for shelters are long and opening fills quickly. Outreach workers have been regularly visiting known camps to maintain connections to shelter, housing and services as they become available. 

The multi-day, outdoor music festival at Cuddy Park is scheduled to start next week, running June 16-18. A local concert production business has been planning the Sundown Solstice Festival since last fall. It paid for permits, lined up nearly 100 artists, invested about $1 million into the event and sold thousands of tickets. 

Then, this spring, the city shut down its winter homeless shelters, leaving hundreds without reliable shelter. That sent them into the streets, vacant lots and parks — including the soon-to-be concert venue. 

Hellen Fleming is part owner of the concert production business putting on the festival, Showdown Alaska. In 10 years of business, she said, this is the first time an issue like this has come up. 

“I felt that blame got dumped on us,” Fleming said. 

She said she’s sympathetic to the campers, but that she trusted city officials to make the best decision for everyone. 

Mayor Bronson’s lead on homelessness issues and the head of the city Parks and Recreation Department have said they decided to clear the camps in and around Cuddy Park because the combination of campers, thousands of concertgoers, alcohol and vehicle traffic created a unique public safety situation. 

“It’s tough because we’re, you know, being painted a little bit into a corner when our only intent was to just do something really nice for the city to help, you know, economic growth and bring something special,” Fleming said. 

belongings are piled up along a wall next to a Lowes hardware store
Someone’s belongings are piled up along a wall next to a Lowes hardware store in Midtown Anchorage on June 6, 2023. People camping in the city-owned, vacant lot to the right were asked to leave ahead of an upcoming outdoor music festival in a nearby park. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

Fleming said she wonders why the city closed its winter shelters without a plan, and why there wasn’t better communication about the concert conflict before campers settled in. 

That conflict may not actually be resolved. While the city cleans up the area, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is stepping in to provide campers with legal help. 

“These are people who literally have nowhere to go,” said Ruth Botstein, the nonprofit’s legal director. “And the courts have said you can’t punish them for sleeping in a park when there are no other options that you have for them.”

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made that decision in 2018 and the U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand in 2019

Botstein said the organization filed notice with the city on Monday that it will appeal the forced relocation of 13 people, including Kyla Freidenbloom, who are or were living in and around Cuddy Park. 

“The city has made a conscious values and policy choice not to provide shelter for people,” Botstein said. “And, you know, that might mean that it is harder to maximize revenue for renting out the parks for other purposes. That is a consequence of the choices the city has made.”

The city’s lawyers have been working on a policy to clarify when it will enforce no-camping rules, within the bounds of the federal court decision. They’ve said that the court ruling does still allow for clearing camps under certain conditions, even when shelters are full. 

A spokesman for the mayor’s office said the city recognizes everyone’s right to appeal, but that as of Wednesday afternoon, it was not aware of any that had been filed.

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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