Juneau campground closes for winter, displacing homeless

Several of Juneau’s homeless live at the city-run Thane Campground. For $25 a week, it may be the cheapest rent in town. Today, the campground closes for the winter, leaving some occupants wondering where to go.

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The Thane Campground is primarily used for housing, not recreation. It closes for the season Oct. 15. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
The Thane Campground is primarily used for housing, not recreation. It closes for the season Oct. 15. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Elliot Scott, 33, moved from his hometown of Bakersfield, California, to Juneau in April.

“It’s a good place to get a new start, to be able to better your life,” Scott said.

In 2004, Scott was arrested for a felony in California. After serving three years, he found himself in and out of jail more than 20 times for parole violations, “It just happens over and over and over and over and over, until you finally get out of the system,”

Scott got off parole in April. He took a job with Alaska Canopy Adventures and lived at the Prospector Hotel for an employer-subsidized rate of $450 a month. When the tourist season ended, so did the housing.

With a tent, a tarp and a sleeping bag, Scott moved to the Thane Campground about one and a half miles from downtown Juneau.

Elliot Scott spent this past month living at the Thane Campground. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Elliot Scott spent this past month living at the Thane Campground. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Scott works at Western Auto Marine, takes a marine transportation class at University of Alaska Southeast and wants to get his captain’s license. He’s paying out of pocket because the course doesn’t qualify for financial aid.

“Going back to school cost me $1,100 and being homeless,” Scott said.

On top of tuition, Scott is paying off criminal fines in California.

“If you add that into the equation of housing and gas and food, it’s like a house payment,” Scott said.

He does laundry and takes showers at the downtown laundromat.

“When I go to work, I’ll go take a shower and I get nice and cleaned up. Nobody ever knows,” Scott said.

At about $8 for a load of laundry and $2 a shower, “It adds up quick, but you got to do what you have to do.”

When the Thane Campground closes, Scott isn’t sure where he’ll live.

Thane Campground facilities include porta-potties, a covered dining area, trash cans and a food shack. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Thane Campground facilities include porta-potties, a covered dining area, trash cans and a food shack. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The City and Borough of Juneau leases the Thane Campground land from AJT Mining Properties, owned by Avista. According tothe lease, the purpose of the campground is to provide campsites with proper facilities for seasonal housing during the temperate months of the year. Its primary goal is to provide housing, not recreation.

“It’s kind of a placement for those that don’t really have anywhere else to go. Just somewhere that they can stay temporary where they know that if they’re able to follow the rules that they can stay at a relatively good price,” said Chris Day, administrative assistant for Juneau Parks & Recreation, which runs the campground.

On its last night before closing, seven of the 18 available camp spots were occupied. Day says three people have stayed at the campground the entire season. Others stay for one or two months. From mid-April to mid-October, he says the campground is usually more than 80 percent full.

Besides the Thane Campground, there aren’t other options in Juneau for long-term camping with facilities on public run land. State and federal campgrounds limit stays.

U.S. Forest Service Recreation Program Manager Ed Grossman said the campgrounds are not for permanent occupancy, “We’re in the recreation business. We’re not in the seasonal housing business, no matter what your situation, whether you’re homeless or low-income job or whatever.”

Mariya Lovishchuk, executive director of Juneau’s shelter and soup kitchen, gets worried when the Thane Campground closes. She says some who live there are considered at risk of dying prematurely, including a 65-year-old man she recently interviewed as part of a homeless survey.

“What closing the campground will mean is that he won’t be in one place. He’ll have to move several times because he’ll camp somewhere and then somebody will inevitably find the camp,” Lovishchuk said. “It’s so hard to set up a camp in the winter and to find stuff. In the summer, it’s less critical because you have more time and resources and body energy to survive the elements and in the winter, you really don’t.”

For Elliot Scott, he has a month left in his marine transportation course. If he doesn’t find proper housing by the time that ends, he may leave Juneau.

In the meantime, he’s looking for another place to camp.