For Anchorage’s homeless residents, the path out is precarious and rarely straight

an impound notice is posted to a chainlink fence
Impound notices are posted on a chain-link fence where a motley array of vehicles — many being used as shelter — are parked at an unofficial homeless campground along Third Avenue in Anchorage on Oct. 2, 2023. Towing began a few days later. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

Marie Nickolai says she’s been living at the unofficial homeless campground along Third Avenue in Anchorage since the spring, when the city shut down its mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena. 

“And I’m now residing in this tent,” the petite woman said on Tuesday. 

She’s layered up with hoodies and jackets. She shares the tent with three other people. Daily average temperatures are now in the 40s and 30s, and overnight freezes are common. To stay warm, Nickolai and the others pile on the blankets inside. Outside, the tent’s getting an extra layer, too — a blue tarp. 

Right now, the city doesn’t have a shelter for Nickolai to go to. But that will change soon. City officials are aiming to open up hotel rooms with beds for 372 people on Oct. 15. Nickolai is ready. 

“I’ll be down there right away,” she said enthusiastically.  

By the end of the month, the city aims to clear this entire encampment and send people into shelters. 

City officials are also planning to convert a former administration building of the city’s garbage utility into a 150-bed temporary shelter

“We believe we’re going to have 522 beds coming online, the most that any administration has ever had going into emergency cold weather sheltering season,” said Alexis Johnson, the city’s homelessness coordinator. 

Local homelessness experts think that’s more beds than there are people living at the Third Avenue campground, and unsheltered across the entire city. After a series of hotels were converted to low-income housing this summer, Johnson said the number of people seeking winter shelter is down 40% from last winter, to around 400 to 450 people. 

The added shelter beds are supposed to be a stepping stone toward stability, but the path out of homelessness is precarious and rarely straight. 

a man on a flatbed truck hauls away a handwashing station
A worker with Rent-a-Can hauls away handwashing stations from the unofficial homeless campground along Third Avenue. They don’t work in freezing temperatures. (Jeremy Hsieh/Alaska Public Media)

At the Third Avenue campground on Tuesday, a worker with Rent-A-Can hauled away handwashing stations. They don’t work in freezing temperatures. The port-a-potties here will be going soon, too. 

Nickolai wondered aloud where she’ll go to the bathroom, and started crying.

“Living homeless, living like this?” she said. 

She despaired for a moment. She continued to cry, but steered her words back to an optimistic place. 

“I may be sad every day,” she said. “But I just appreciate — I just say, ‘Thank you father God, for another day.’” 

Afternoon shadows stretched out across the vacant lot. Outreach workers started packing up their folding tables and pop-up tents for the day. One longtime worker spotted Nickolai crying and struck up a conversation. 

“Well, I thank you for being Marie,” he said. “You make my day when I see you.” 

Her mood immediately shifted. She laughed and told him, “No, you make my day.” 

They casually exchange “I love yous.”  

These ups and downs are constant, from moment to moment and day to day. A series of wins — like having a hot meal, getting a free smartphone and service, nailing down eligibility paperwork for welfare programs — can all be undone by a bad choice, a bad actor or bad luck. 

Nearby, Brian Sharpe sat on the ground under a blanket, keeping watch over his friends’ tent. His lip, nose and forehead were bruised and scraped. 

“I bounced off the curb and — pfft,” he said. “I didn’t know it, but I had a seizure yesterday and didn’t even know it.” 

During an ambulance trip recently, he said, he lost a backpack with his wallet, phone and medical paperwork. 

“And now, I gotta start all over again because nobody believes the doctor diagnosed me disabled,” he said.

Sharpe didn’t know where he’d sleep that night. 

Other people have been using cars as shelter. They learned at the end of September they’ll be impounded if they aren’t moved. 

a bearded man speaks from the driver's side of a car
Ronald Coulson, pictured here on Sept. 28, 2023, says he’s been living out of this Jeep and an RV parked at a vacant lot along Anchorage’s Third Avenue since April. Police tagged his vehicles with impound notices, but he doesn’t have a valid driver’s license or anywhere else to park. “I’m just stuck,” he said. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Ronald Coulson parked his RV here in April. He is also at the top of the city’s list of serial offenders for traffic violations and unpaid fines. He doesn’t have a valid license. 

“I don’t really have any place to park anything, any of my vehicles,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how in the world I can do it, I don’t know. … I don’t want to lose my motorhome, that’s the only place I got to live now.”

Coulson said he messed up his back in a past car wreck. He said he can’t really walk or use the bus system. 

“I’m just stuck,” he said. 

On Thursday, tow truck companies working with Anchorage police hauled away an array of vehicles. 

Coulson did manage to slip out with his RV before that. Not everyone could

A man sitting next to a red car and a boat
Arthur Warren, pictured here on Sept. 28, 2023, says he was recently evicted from low-income housing and has been living out of the car behind him for a few days at a vacant lot along Anchorage’s Third Avenue. The car was impounded a few days later. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Arthur Warren was living out of a car here for a few days. He lost his house in Palmer to a fire in 2018, and has been in and out of housing, temporary shelters, cars and tents since. 

In just the last week of September, Warren said, he was evicted from low-income housing, given the car to sleep in and got the impound notice. 

In winters past, he lost two toes to frostbite and gangrene.

“So I want to head south before winter hits,” Warren said. “I don’t think my feet will hold up, I think they’re going to end up cutting my feet off.”

He’s not sure what’s next, but he knows he has to get out of the cold. 

The Anchorage Assembly is expected to approve contracts and funding for the winter shelter plan next Tuesday. Shelter providers and service agencies use a coordinated system for matching up people with resources as they become available. If you need help, call 211 to get started. 

a portrait of a man outside

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him atjhsieh@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremyhere.

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