AK: Juneau city manager: ‘People genuinely don’t have somewhere to go’

A tent city sprang up in Alaska’s capital city this spring. Juneau is struggling with a ballooning homeless population and so far efforts to crack down have just moved the problem around.

Campers gather near a small group of tents about noon Thursday near the 300 block of Egan Drive in Juneau. (Photo by Tripp J Crouse/KTOO)

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In an encampment on the edge of town there’s steak grilling on a propane stove. Tents began appearing in this wooded area about three weeks ago.

“I set up mine and then I woke up and there were three or four next to me,” Kevin Howard, 44, tent city resident. “They followed, it just kind of came in waves. Everybody here looks after each other and nobody does nothing to nobody. We make sure everybody’s OK in the morning. ‘Need something to eat? Need some water?’ We look after each other here.”

Juneau has been wrestling with a rising homeless population. Responding to complaints from merchants, the Juneau Assembly passed an ordinance this winter banning camping on private property in the downtown core.

53-year-old David Waits was among those who sheltered in front of a storefront to keep out of the wind and snow.

“This past winter was cold,” Watts said. “I stayed in the doorways with just a blanket. It’d be like 7 degrees out. You just gotta survive.”

The anti-camping ordinance went into effect this spring. That led people to move onto public property namely, Marine Park where cruise ships dock.

Last month the city directed police to ticket anyone in the park after hours. Howard and Waits say officers told campers: “You guys get your (expletive) out of here or otherwise it goes in the trash.”

 

Howard says the police officers  threw everybody out of the doorways and out of the park and that’s why they have congregated where they did.

Critics of the anti-camping ordinance had warned that a crackdown would just move the problem around.

“What happened is what we’ve seen happen in other communities that have similar ordinances is they are displacing homeless individuals,” Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness director, Brian Wilson said. His group unsuccessfully argued against the camping ban.

“If we displace these individuals again, I’m not really sure where they’re going to go,” Wilson said.

The city of Juneau is coming around to this reality and officials say police aren’t planning on moving against camp dwellers unless they get a trespassing complaint from the landowner.

In this case that’s the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. Wyn Menefee, deputy director of the trust’s land office, says the waterfront acreage is in the process of being sold to private developers.

“If it were to get into a situation where it started in hindering the ability to make revenue off of the trust, we may have to do something further about it,” Menefee said. “But right now it hasn’t stopped us from doing what we intend to do with the parcel.”

About half of Juneau’s homeless population report suffering from mental illness. That’s according to a spring survey conducted by social workers who canvassed the community.

Brian Wilson says of the 96 unsheltered people that social workers interviewed 45 said they had mental health issues or concerns.

“That’s simply an under-reported number as well,” Wilson said.

The irony of the mentally ill trespassing on Mental Health Trust Authority land is not lost on Steve Williams, the authority’s chief of operations.

“We’re actively engaged in the community on a number of different levels and probably target this population in one way or the other,” Williams said.

One of the projects the trust is helping fund is Juneau Housing First. It’s an apartment complex slated to open this summer and house 32 of the community’s most vulnerable homeless residents.

Brian Wilson says Housing First is sorely needed but won’t solve the community’s homeless crisis that’s forcing people to sleep outside.

“The folks that we’re seeing down at the camp are candidates for Housing First interventions but at the current state of our capacity, we don’t have that here locally,” Wilson said. “We need a lot more units.”

In the meantime this encampment appears to be growing. The city has tried to coax homeless people to use the city-run Thane campground. But as it’s two miles down an unlit road with no bus service, people here say they feel safer closer to town. But even so many say they sleep with one eye open.

The city and the trust authority have received at least one complaint from the public concerned about health and sanitation. That will inevitably be an issue if the camp remains here long term.

But a recent visit showed a tidy camp with very little trash in sight. David Waits says there’s a sense of pride about making the best out of what little you have.

“We’re all the same – it doesn’t matter how much money you make or how much you have or anything else,” Waits said. “We’re all common people. I’m a Lakota Sioux Indian and we believe everybody’s related. Nobody’s higher or lower than the next person.”

So with few options available for Juneau’s homeless population, it appears a tent city on the edge of town has become the status quo.