Town Square gardeners pick up the burden of city homelessness

An unlikely group of city employees are on the front line of handling worsening woes with homelessness in Anchorage. Town Square Park in the city’s downtown is a microcosm of how the Parks and Recreation Department is picking up some of the responsibilities working with people who have few other places to go.

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Jamie Whiteman starts watering flowers after she and her crew finish gathering trash and rousing people that stayed overnight in Town Square Park
Jamie Whiteman starts watering flowers after she and her crew finish gathering trash and rousing people that stayed overnight in Town Square Park. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA.

Roman Rubio’s day starts at 4 a.m., driving in from the Valley to a meeting among Anchorage’s small battalion of gardeners in an office beside a Green House within Russian Jack Park. He and three other Parks Department workers load equipment into a truck, and by 6:30 a.m. they’re in Town Square Park tending to overflowing flower beds and orderly patches of grass.

“I think of it as kind of like industrial gardening,” Rubio said one a recent Friday morning.

An Army brat who moved back to Alaska, Rubio has been with the Parks Department in one role or another since 2006, working up to his official title as “Gardener III.”

“I think of this park as kind of like a oasis in downtown,” Rubio said. When he lived in town he’d spend his off days enjoying the park. “I’d like to just keep it clean enough for others to do the same.”

Roman Rubio gets ready to turn on the sprinklers, which he says is a last resort for getting people to leave as the crew starts tending to the gardens and lawn in Town Square. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
Roman Rubio gets ready to turn on the sprinklers, which he says is a last resort for getting people to leave as the crew starts tending to the gardens and lawn in Town Square. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

One of the unexpected responsibilities for a Gardener III is trash — lots of it. Rubio and his crew spend the first hour of each morning fanning out with trash-bags and garbage pincher sticks, erasing all evidence of the night before.

“Food trash, alcohol trash,cigarette butts, bodily fluids,” Rubio rattles off, flatly, describing the normal debris. “It’s not every day we get blessed with feces and vomit, but it’s pretty frequently.”

Each day, the trash gives a glimpse of what happened the night before. Today the crew removed a bottle of Crown Royal whisky, dime bags, and emergency contact cards from a nearby teen center.
Each day, the trash gives a glimpse of what happened the night before. Today the crew removed a bottle of Crown Royal whisky, dime bags, and emergency contact cards from a nearby teen center.

Each night, a good number of people stay in the park, and Rubio’s crew regularly rouse folks as they start cleaning and setting up sprinklers.

This particular morning is mellow, Rubio tells me. Two or three people collect sleeping bags and gear beneath trees. Rubio exchanges a greeting with a middle-aged man named Willy sitting on a stone bench, who explains the Park employees tend to be a lot friendlier than the bike cops or private security staffers who all start circulate in the mornings.

“Right about this time,” Willy said, “every day they come around.”

Willy is friendly, but kind of out of it. He asks me if I smoke weed, and I can’t tell if it’s an inquisition or an offer. Either way, this is one of the big concerns for the gardeners: They are never sure what they’re in for.

Crew member Jamie Whiteman rotates sites each day, and said that while there’s definitely trash in other park areas, “It’s a lot more at Town Square.” She was spooked recently when someone started following her around the park as she was cleaning up. Rubio said not long ago someone tried to fight him for his coffee mug.

And there are a few things that have made this year exceptionally rough. For one: More hard drugs.

It's Jamie Whiteman's first year working for the Parks and Recreation Department. She likes the work, and plans on returning next season. Photo: Zachariah Hughes
It’s Jamie Whiteman’s first year working for the Parks and Recreation Department. She likes the work, and plans on returning next season. Photo: Zachariah Hughes

“We found so many needles here this summer,” Rubio said, “and that’s something we’ve never found in the past.”

More than that, Rubio thinks once people start partying or sleeping in the park, it signals that there’s permission, bringing along more people and more of the behaviors that are prompting a response from city hall and the Assembly.

Chris Schutte recently took over as Director for the city’s Department of Community and Economic Affairs. But before working for the mayor, Schutte headed the Downtown Partnership, a group that works on behalf of downtown businesses and property owners. In a transition report they prepared for the new administration, the Partnership identified Town Square Park as one of it’s top concerns.

“We’ve been hearing from a lot of our stakeholders that the park–and the stigma of the park–does have a direct impact on their success as a business or their ability to lease property adjacent to the park,” Schutte said in a downtown cafe.

Presently, there is no cost estimate for the man-hours and maintenance connected to what he calls “unsanctioned park activities,” but it definitely adds up.

But it may be a paradox fundamental to the park: Maintaining a safe, pleasant public space doesn’t just bring office workers on lunch breaks–but also residents with few options for where to spend an evening, or find a dry place to sleep. It’s a question that the Sullivan Administration started taking up with the nearby Transit Center. Now, the Berkowitz administration is wading into the issue, as well.

“We’re trying to take a more holistic approach to both,” Schutte said, likening the relationship between the park and Transit Center to a water-balloon: Squeezing one side just moves the water over. “You can’t fix one without impacting the other.”

The park, though, is something of a landmine in Anchorage politics, with many still recalling the long, complicated battle it took to get it made in the first place. But Schutte believes changes are essential: on top of the nuisance and extra upkeep costs, during the last several years public safety has eclipsed any discussion of the park’s mission within Anchorage.

Each morning crews spread across the city's 223 parks. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
Each morning crews spread across the city’s 223 parks. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

“How do we make this a town square park?” Schutte asked. “How do we make this the central gathering, civic space of our community?”

In the short term, the administration is looking at patches to current problems, like triming trees, possibly setting up a charging station so people stop breaking open outlets to charge phones.

Longer term, they’re planning a “community dialogue,” convening a group of stakeholders that will chart a course for how Town Square Park fits into contemporary Anchorage.

For Rubio, the daily messes are more a frustration than anything else. The gardeners pick where to put plants based on activity around the park. We’re standing near a well-trod footpath, far from the dramatic, crowd-pleasing dahlia bed, staring at a battered wad of purple kale.

“It’ll take a lot of abuse,” Rubio said, admiringly. “That’s probably not a good thing to advertise,” he added with a laugh.

In total, the Parks Department’s Horticulture Section oversees 76,000 flowers across 461 beds and baskets, along with 21,600 trees, 39,525 shrubs, and a half-mile of hedges.