Two men shook out the rainwater that had pooled inside their tent at the sprawling homeless encampment along Anchorage’s Third Avenue last Tuesday.
A loud pop rang out nearby. The two men paused.
Sounds like a pistol, one of them said.
It’s not unusual.
Lately, people hear gunfire daily at the encampment and from nearby streets in this stretch between Anchorage’s Fairview and downtown neighborhoods.
They heard about three dozen gunshots over the last few nights, people in the camp said.
More than 300 times between June 1 and Aug. 31, Anchorage police have received calls to or responded to the Third Avenue area at Ingra and Gambell streets, according to records provided by the police department: A woman’s tent engulfed in flames. A sexual assault reported by an anonymous woman who police never found. Another woman, hospitalized, after an unknown man sprayed her with bear mace in her tent. A man shot in the upper body, a bystander to an altercation, and no arrests made.
On Aug. 17, a 36-year-old man overdosed in a tent in the Third Avenue encampment, according to police. People living there gave him naloxone— a life-saving medicine that quickly treats opioid overdoses — but the man died. Another man died at the camp earlier this month, a possible overdose, police said.
“It’s a lot of meth. It’s a lot of fentanyl. People are dying out here,” said Casey Hubbard, one of the men trying to dry out his tent last week.
Homeless residents, nearby business owners and service providers say that gun violence, assaults, extortion, theft and drug dealing have proliferated, largely unfettered, in the Third Avenue encampment and surrounding streets.
The camp — a 15-acre lot of city-owned land — is full of vulnerable people who aren’t protected, Hubbard said.
“If you’re a predator, if you’re an aggressive person, or you’re a victimizer, this is like, the place where you would go. This is like a hunting ground for you,” Hubbard said.
He’s been living in the camp for about a month. “I mean, even security can only do so much. And they do — only do so much,” he said. “And then the cops come, and then they don’t even seem to do much at all, either.”
The city closed its mass emergency shelter in Sullivan Arena this spring, leaving the 200 or so people now camping in the Third Avenue lot with few options. Hundreds of other people are living unsheltered in dozens of camps scattered throughout the city’s green spaces and public lands.
Neighbors of the downtown encampment say they feel helpless as the area deteriorates.
“If you can have people come through and threaten and beat up and steal stuff and take people, you know, and extort with impunity — it starts there. Where does it end? It won’t end there,” said SJ Klein, vice president of the Fairview Community Council and chair of the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Development Commission.
And the people living in tents, vehicles and under tarps — tucked largely out of public view behind a wall of green slat fencing — are trapped in survival mode.
Stuck in ‘Tent City’
Daniel Hogan and Toni Bismark don’t know the man who tried to shoot them.
It happened earlier this summer — before the city began staffing a single security guard at the camp’s gated entrance.
“I didn’t even know his name. I barely know his face. The only time I’ve seen him was when he was pulling a gun out on us,” Bismark said.
The couple fled. Hogan ran out of the camp, pushing Bismark in her wheelchair east toward the Brother Francis Shelter a block away, he said.
“She was watching the bullets as he was coming, I was pushing as fast as I can, running downhill,” Hogan said.
A bullet cut through Hogan’s jacket, just missing his side, he said.
“I could feel them as they went by,” Hogan said. “He almost hit me in the ears and everything else — in the back of the head, man, with bullets.”
For hours, they hid. They crouched behind the nearby homeless service buildings and in brushy areas.
Since arriving in Anchorage from Kenai this spring, Hogan and Bismark have been living in an old Chevy truck. They were among the first group of homeless residents to camp in the city lot.
The couple moved to Anchorage to drive for DoorDash, Hogan said. But he can’t make money that way anymore.
“My truck broke down, so we’re stuck at Tent City,” Hogan said.
At first it was an OK place to stay, they said. The location is convenient.
At Catholic Social Services’ 3rd Avenue Resource & Navigation Center, just down the hill from the camp, homeless residents can take showers, charge their phones, have coffee and a snack. They can also get connected to social services — though openings for housing and shelter programs are scarce.
People can find meals a few blocks south of the camp at the Henry House and at the Hope Center’s Downtown Soup Kitchen farther west on Third Avenue.
Now, since the shooting, “we stay in our truck,” Hogan said. “We just wait till eating times and we go get our food and go back to the truck. We don’t stick around.”
And Hogan is afraid to leave Bismark alone.
“I still think about it a lot, walking around. The streets we go down remind me of that day,” Bismark said.
She already struggled with her mental health. After the shooting, and the trauma of her experience in the camp, Bismark attempted suicide.
“After all that, I just want to face him. Tell him what he made me do,” she said. “I want to know his name. I, just, all these people — I don’t even know who I could trust anymore. It is hard.”
‘We take care of each other’
Rumors swirled inside the encampment last Tuesday.
Multiple people spoke of bodies buried in a wooded area just behind the camp to the north. Officers searched the area over the weekend but found nothing, according to a spokeswoman for the police department.
Social workers, homeless campers and people in the neighborhood had all heard of young women being sold for sex.
“It’s daily. I hear stories of people getting trafficked. It’s right under people’s noses,” said William Scott, outreach specialist with local nonprofit RurAL CAP.
Many spoke of a group of young men they said were responsible for most of the chaos — assaults, robbery, theft and gunfire.
“You shouldn’t go over there,” Hubbard warned reporters, pointing to a cluster of tents deep in the back of the camp, beyond the dumpsters and past a stretch of large rain puddles.
Hubbard’s friend had been attacked. “One of the hardcore meth guys” who’d been hanging out there punched him in the head, Hubbard said.
The sole security guard got out of his car and swung open the large red gate. A city truck loaded with barrels of drinking water drove in.
Another truck serviced the small row of graffiti-laden port-a-potties near the camp’s paved entrance.
Faded signs on their doors asked campers not to use drugs inside. Inside one, between the urinal and the toilet, a hole had been melted through the plastic. A needle lay strewn in the dirt just outside.
“Man, you can’t even use the bathrooms down there. You got four or five people in there smoking dope. You can’t get in, or they take all the toilet paper,” Hogan said.
Close to where the guard parks — safer and quieter than other areas — Hubbard prepared to move the tent to a slightly drier spot along the fence line.
“They raid my tent right there,” a woman said, pointing to the empty area. “They raid my tent and they slash my tent and everything.”
“We take care of each other though, right?” Hubbard said to her, hugging her with one arm around her shoulder. After her tent was ruined, she’d joined Hubbard and his friend in theirs.
Others in the camp trudged through mud and around large puddles last Tuesday to a row of white canopies just outside the fence. Service providers at a weekly outreach popup handed out snack bags, water and clothing. At one table, people could sign up for food benefits. A nearby food truck served lunch — two slices of pizza.
At another tent, people received bags of toiletries, medicine like ibuprofen, and harm reduction kits with clean needles and life-saving naloxone, also known under the brand name Narcan.
Travis Barnes said his group of friends in camp don’t use drugs, but they all carry Narcan.
“I carry it on me just in case somebody does need it,” Barnes said, sitting in the navigation center last week.
The group keeps mostly to themselves in the camp. People are less likely to steal from them that way, he said.
Life there isn’t too bad, Barnes said — except it’s starting to get cold.
Across the street from the encampment is a cluster of vacation rentals owned by Rob Cupples. Cupples has been outspoken this summer with city officials, the media — anyone who will listen — about the deteriorating situation in the area. A nearby business, PIP Printing, is owned by John Tatham, a block south of the camp on Fourth Avenue.
The city’s Parks and Recreation Department has worked hard to keep the camp clean and trash under control, they said.
Still, at the nearby properties, “you have to pick up trash every day. You have trespass every day, graffiti frequently, attempted break-ins and we had our delivery van stolen,” Tatham said. “… Anything that isn’t nailed down will get stolen.”
Cupples described seeing a “significant spike in pretty visible prostitution” and blatant drug transactions in the neighborhood and camp.
“It’s insane to me the amount of drug traffic and drug activity that’s taking place across the street,” Cupples said.
But Cupples’ biggest concern is the gun violence, he said.
In one incident, a young child in the camp witnessed a man shooting at the ground by her father’s feet, making him “dance,” said Rob Seay of Henning Inc., the nonprofit operating the supportive housing facility at the former Golden Lion Hotel.
Afterward, the city moved the girl and her three-generation family into the former hotel, though they’re now staying elsewhere, he said.
“Just heartbreaking — more than heartbreaking. It was just terrifying to know that there were kids in that type of harm’s way. And that’s just one story,” Seay said.
Homeless service providers at the navigation center said the situation points to a dire need for more walk-up, low barrier emergency shelter — and for more housing in Anchorage. Without safe shelter, people are left vulnerable and in survival mode, they said.
Fairview residents say they fear the crime and victimization of the vulnerable that’s taken hold of the neighborhood will continue to grow.
“It’s just so mind-boggling to me,” Cupples said. “How can we continue to allow this stuff to just happen? … It’s like everyone knows, but no one’s doing anything about it.”