Anchorage green spaces trashed and damaged as homelessness crisis continues

A large homeless camp sits immediately adjacent to the Campbell Creek Greenbelt Trail. Homeless camps are a regular sight along portions of Anchorage’s trails this spring. Photographed May 7, 2024. (Anne Raup / ADN)

The homelessness crisis in Anchorage is more apparent than ever as encampments have proliferated in the city’s public spaces.

In the most visible camps along trails there are piles of trash and discarded items strewn around. There’s also ecological damage and a perception that some areas are unsafe.

At the same time, advocates and unhoused people themselves say they have nowhere else to go.

Anchorage Daily News reporter Michelle Theriault Boots recently toured some hotspots. And Theriault Boots says a lot of people feel like homelessness in Anchorage is a bigger problem now than anytime in recent memory.


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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Michelle Theriault Boots: I mean, I think there’s a sense that for many years it’s been building. But the last three summers in particular, where we’ve had these kind of unstable shelter operations, there’s just naturally going to be more people living in green spaces in Anchorage. But the types of camps and just sort of the size of camps, I think, you know, some of the people we spoke with said they seem to have changed. They seem to be larger. There seems to be more just, kind of, destruction. And then it’s, of course, complicated by the fact that the city is right now in kind of a limited position of being legally free to clear camps in some circumstances.

Casey Grove: And that is related to a case now that is before the Supreme Court. They’ve heard oral arguments in that case. A decision is expected soon. Can you remind us what that’s all about? And why does it in some ways tie the city’s hands?

MTB: Yeah, so the basic idea is that if a city does not have adequate indoor shelter to offer a person living in a camp, that restricts the city’s ability to clear that camp, though, there are carve outs to that. And in some circumstances, if the, you know, the city kind of determines there’s imminent health and safety risks, they can and have cleared camps. The U.S. Supreme Court case, the Grants Pass case, that kind of tests that notion, there’s the expectation that the Supreme Court will rule on that as soon as June. So that could be changing, but that’s the way it is for the moment.

CG: How did we get here? I mean, it’s multifaceted, right? But for the people that work with unhoused folks here in Anchorage, what are some of the reasons that they give for this homelessness crisis?

MTB: Well, I would say not just the people who work with unhoused folks, but what unhoused folks themselves say, is that it’s twofold. You know, for a while, we had this very large, kind of, all-comers-welcome, low-barrier shelter at the Sullivan Arena, which at the peak was sheltering over 500 people a night. That no longer exists. There is some limited low-barrier shelter space, but not everybody wants to live in a shelter, for a variety of reasons. And I think that, combined with an unhoused population that has grown just means that there’s more people with truly nowhere to live that are going to, you know, live in in tents and live in structures they’ve made for themselves in greenbelts.

CG: What does the city say about that?

MTB: They really want a yearround shelter to be built. But there’s disagreement with the Assembly on a whole lot of things about that, including how it’s funded and how that should be approached. But one thing that Alexis Johnson, the coordinator, the homeless coordinator for the city, has repeatedly said is, until there is a, you know, stable yearround shelter, it’s hard to tackle these camps, because of the legal framework.

CG:And I guess we should add, too, part of the idea of a shelter as they describe is as a shelter and navigation center, right? What does that mean?

MTB: I think that’s maybe one of the untold things that people maybe don’t know about what’s happened, is, you know, in the last few years, there’s been a lot of cooperation, a lot of effort and a lot of money put into moving people to transitional housing. And I think that has been, kind of, quietly it’s been happening on a pretty large scale. And that’s what we don’t see and don’t hear about, like, people are being moved into apartments and housing. There’s also a whole lot of other people who are not, for various reasons, you know, in that trajectory, who are camping outside and continue to camp outside.

CG: What can we expect going forward here this summer?

MTB: So there’s about 200 people staying at the SWS shelter — which is like a congregate, mass, low-barrier shelter — right now. And it sounds like there’s, you know, funding from the state to continue operations of that. I think the city would really like to keep that open. So there are people still staying in the Aviator (Hotel), which is a non-congregate shelter. And those rooms are expected to close on June 1. And to my knowledge, the last I have heard from homeless coordinator Alexis Johnson is that those people, you know, will be out on the street. There’s not a forward plan for them.

So that could be changing by the minute, because I think there is a will and an understanding, not just by the city and the administration, but by other groups, that it’s not good, not good that all these folks are living outside, that they don’t have anywhere else to live. It’s causing causing problems and it’s dangerous for them. You know, when I went to spend some time talking with a couple of folks who are living in a tent above the Railroad Depot, one of the things that one of the gentlemen, a guy named Dan Braden said, that will stick with me is, you know, we’re talking about the trails and people not feeling safe on the trails and he said, “Do you think we feel safe on the trails?” And that’s a good point. It is dangerous to be an unhoused person living in a camp in Anchorage, for a lot of reasons.

a portrait of a man outside

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him Read more about Caseyhere

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