Meet the married retirees pushing Anchorage to change homeless policy

Russ Webb shows photos he’s taken of camps in the areas near his neighborhood (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

A group of residents in Anchorage is organizing to change the city’s response to homelessness. They say the current approach is too narrowly focused on long-term housing, and has allowed lawless camps to persist along popular trails. The frustration has turned once sleepy public meetings into increasingly contentious events. And one couple is at the center of the efforts.

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Even by the standards of public municipal meetings, the Anchorage Assembly’s Committee on Homelessness used to be dull. Members would typically listen to briefs on data and observe elaborate flow charts of social service programs. Occasionally, a member or two of the public would testify about an issue causing them grief.

Now, those same committee meetings have become markedly more dramatic, routinely packed with standing room only. A group of older residents, many of them retired and active in local community councils, has started filling out the audience, grumbling, testifying and chiding the Assembly members if they don’t speak loudly enough.

Russ Webb and his wife Stephanie Rhoades are at the front of the fight.

Webb’s frustration peaked at a meeting in August over a set of policy proposals introduced two months earlier that the Assembly has continually delayed taking up.

“I would have brought that draft proposal to this committee for discussion today,” Webb said at the meeting with a note of exasperation in his voice.

Webb and Rhoades are unlikely antagonists in a fight over homeless issues. Both voted for Mayor Ethan Berkowitz. Webb even maxed out his contributions to the re-election campaign. Before retiring, both had long careers working for the state on topics like mental health, homelessness and substance abuse.  Now, with more time on their hands, they’re working long hours to try shaping the city’s response to the issue.

During an interview inside their home in the well-to-do South Addition neighborhood between downtown and the Chester Creek trail, Webb explained a 12-point plan for dealing with nearby homeless camps he is pushing the Assembly to consider implementing.

“The proposals are intended to push the municipality to develop a system, to actually comprehensively and continuously identify camps, engage campers, move folks who need help to the systems that will help them and to enforce the prohibitions against all the public nuisances within and emanating from the camps,” Webb said.

The 68-year-old is extremely organized. The 12 points touch on everything from adjustments to municipal codes, expanding shelter options, increasing funding for specific jobs and even thinning vegetation along trails to improve sight lines. Along with the one-sheet of bullet points, Webb also submitted a supplemental document explaining each one in depth. It is 22 pages long.

Rhoades is a former judge who helped establish a mental health court. She knows what mental illness, substance abuse and personal tragedy look like. The people she encounters in the camps, though, don’t all fit those categories.

“There is a tremendous pocket of crime that is a subset of the folks who are camping,” Rhoades said.

The couple know the camps better than most. They go in, take pictures, talk with people, occasionally get into arguments and have generally tried to educate themselves about what’s happening on the trail system they use so frequently.

Their main criticism is that the Berkowitz Administration has become overly focused on getting hard-to-house residents into permanent housing and connected with social services. And they say that has come at the expense of effectively curbing illegal camping that is ruining residential life and allowing misery to go unchecked in the woods.

“It’s just too slow of a process to be able to adequately address the encampments and the issues that are impacting the community,” Rhoades said.

Since coming into office, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s administration has made significant progress on a “Housing First” model that creates new permanent residential units. According to City Homelessness Coordinator Nancy Burke, the policies have helped more than 300 people get into housing over the last few years. They have plans house 270 more by 2021.

Burke says the city is making progress on the issue, even though that is not always readily visible to residents.

“We agree there is not enough that’s happening,” Burke said. “However, in the last three years we’ve built the foundation for us to take the camp abatement process and actually (assist) people to move out of those locations.”

Burke pointed out the administration and assembly recently revised the city’s strategy for evicting campers, increased waste removal by public employees and improved data collection on where camps are being established.

She and several sympathetic Assembly members regularly point out to critics that the municipality is constantly trying to balance the demands of residents for clean, safe public parks with respect for campers’ civil rights, a matter that has come before the courts in the past.

“We have chosen to focus on the solutions that will end this problem for Anchorage so we’re not having this same conversation in five years,” Burke said.

Recently, Burke has been attending community council meetings around town where residents are discussing whether or not to formally support for the 12-point plan. All measures, she stresses, need to be part of the broader public process.