Alaska’s largest city has broken its record for outdoor deaths.
So far this year, 29 people believed to be homeless have died outside in Anchorage. That surpasses last year’s grim milestone of 24 outdoor deaths, and there are still five months left in the year.
The numbers come from reporting by the Anchorage Daily News and ADN reporter Michelle Theriault Boots, who writes about the city’s homelessness issues. (In another recent story, Theriault Boots chronicled one woman’s yearlong journey from homelessness to getting housed).
Theriault Boots says six of the outdoor deaths happened in just a four-day period, from July 18 to July 21, and that more than half occurred after the city closed the Sullivan Arena shelter.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Michelle Theriault Boots: That (number of deaths in a short time) really says something. Why is this happening? I think we have incomplete information. A little bit about the data: This is something that we have requested for years from the Anchorage Police Department. And what they give us is incident reports. You know, police were called to the scene of X place and found a person not breathing. Few details, and it notably does not include the cause of death. I mean, one kind of speculative explanation offered by Alexis Johnson, the homeless coordinator for the city, is that this summer you just have a bunch of people, who otherwise might have been in some kind of shelter, who are all camping. So in many of these recent cases, you know, people are found dead in a tent that’s hidden away in the woods somewhere. So there was kind of a thought that maybe people are more isolated, and there’s fewer opportunities for intervention. Like, no one can give you Narcan if you’re alone in a tent, whereas maybe if you’re overdosing in a shelter environment, or somewhere where there are more people, there might be more of an opportunity for someone to intervene.
Casey Grove: Yeah. And the city continues to work on that. But it does sound like there’s not going to be anything here in the very near term in regards to a homeless shelter or navigation center going into the fall in winter. What do you expect to happen?
MTB: Well, I mean, there also is the threshold where the city, I think legally, has to provide some kind of cold weather shelter. What I was hearing was that the city believes that with all the new non-congregate housing that’s come online recently, with the hotels that are converted to, you know, so people can live in the rooms, many people see as a success story. They think that’s gonna make a really big dent in the number of people who need shelter this winter. And they think that they — I mean, what, again, city homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson said is they think they can handle the need for winter shelter, using that non-congregate space, those hotel conversions. Whether that’s true remains to be seen. And that also doesn’t exactly address the issue of the person who is, you know, functioning maybe on a really low level on the street and who needs immediate, just a place to get warm on a frigid day. So I think that that’s something that people believe needs to be addressed.
CG: Well, this high number of outdoor deaths is obviously troubling. But you also recently wrote a story about somebody’s journey from homelessness to getting housing. And I think it’s fair to say that it’s a little bit more complicated than just somebody getting a job and getting an apartment. And that person, her name is Monique. Can you tell me about her story? And I guess maybe just starting with how you met her?
MTB: Yeah, Monique, she was raised in Anchorage, went to high school in Anchorage, spent some time Outside in San Diego, trained as a medical billing and coding specialist. And then found herself homeless in Anchorage about eight years ago for the first time. You know, homelessness was kind of driven by alcoholism and some mental health issues. Monique is a really smart, really funny, witty person. And we actually met her on the steps of the Sullivan Arena the day that it closed for the summer in 2022, so about a little over a year ago. And she was one of the folks that was just sitting there waiting for what was next. She had nowhere to go. She had been kicked out of most of the shelters in Anchorage for what she described as her outbursts of anger. And she was just very articulate about her situation. She did not want to go camp, but that was her only choice. So the city sent her to Centennial Campground, and she went from being, you know, having all of her belongings in garbage bags, at the closed Sullivan Arena to moving into an apartment. And, you know, through that time, she really worked on herself. I mean, she is completely responsible for her success. She addressed a lot of longstanding difficult issues. But she was also really helped by being able to live at a place called Complex Care, which is a small shelter for people with medically complex situations. And that place just really worked for her.
CG: In a photo that you took, she was sitting there on her bed with her cat under her arm.
MTB: Yes, her cat Coco was a really big motivator. You know, someone she knew had been caring for Coco for years, and she just wanted to be reunited with her cat and have that freedom and dignity to have a pet, which I think a lot of people take for granted. But when you’re homeless, that’s, you know, that’s not something you can always do. And so just having that autonomy to have her pet with her meant the world to her, I think.