After pandemic forced changes, East 3rd Ave has cleaned up. Businesses and shelters are loving it.

A client of the Brother Francis Shelter gets some fresh air along East 3rd Avenue. The area used to be crowded with people waiting for services at Bean’s Cafe or Brother Francis, as well as some who dealt illicit substances. But recent changes have made the area quieter and cleaner. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The intersection of East 3rd Avenue and Ingra Street once had one of the city’s worst homelessness problems. But, over the last few weeks, the area has started looking a lot different. 

That follows a recent abatement of the once-sprawling camp and the transition of many homeless services to the emergency mass shelter at the Sullivan Arena. 

At Brother Francis Shelter, about a block away from the intersection, managers said the changes have helped improve services for clients. 

“Since those services have been spread out a little bit, we are not seeing the concentration of individuals that we had had before,” said David Rittenberg, program director of the Brother Francis. “With that, we’ve seen some pretty positive impacts to the neighborhood.”

Aside from cutting down on its capacity, which allowed the shelter to provide social distancing to clients, the movement of people from outside the shelter to other areas of town has improved the services Brother Francis has been able to provide, Rittenberg said. Bean’s Cafe, the city’s biggest soup kitchen, no longer serves meals next to Brother Francis. Instead, it has become a food prep center and distributes meals around town. 

Rittenberg said the number of calls for emergency services at Brother Francis has dropped, as has the need for behavioral interventions. 

He’s also seen anecdotal evidence of improvement. 

The story of one client in particular stands out, Rittenberg said. Following a foot injury, the client had used a wheelchair for months. Rittenberg thought he might be disabled for the rest of his life. But when the crowds on the street and the drug dealers cleared out, Rittenberg said, he realized the issue wasn’t with his client’s foot, it was with addiction. With the dealers gone, the client stopped using. 

“We were all very surprised because we thought he was, you know, he was going to be permanently or at least long-term in that in that wheelchair,” Rittenberg said. “So that gentleman is up out of his wheelchair walking around, helping us out with chores, mopping the floor.”

Jennifer, a client at the shelter who didn’t want to share her last name for fear of stigma, has been staying in the shelter through the pandemic-induced changes. 

“There was different people would come in intoxicated or rowdy, fighting. Yeah, just different types of behaviors and issues where staff would have to be involved security would have to be involved,” she said.

She’s waiting on a prospect for housing, as well at a job working at the shelter. 

While the moving of the shelter to the Sullivan was helpful, John Tatham, who owns PIP Printing on the corner of 4th and Ingra, said a recent camp abatement made an even bigger difference. 

“Ever since this last abatement, things here have been much, much better,” he said. 

It wasn’t just the squalor that frustrated him.

“We don’t have people sleeping in our doorways anymore,” he said. “We don’t have nearly the trash that we used to have. We don’t have the confrontations with guys high on drugs. So it’s been much better all my employees feel much safer.”

The city abated the camp weeks ago, part of a formal process it does to notify individuals camping on public property that they need to be ready for a move. The city had done it in the past, said Tatham. But this time, he said, the city has been more responsive to nearby business owners’ calls about re-established camps. 

Tatham said that a group of business owners has banded together and is taking turns patrolling the area for signs of re-establishing camps. It’s not something he wants to do, he said, but it’s worth the trouble. 

“We do have to patrol it but having lived through what we’ve lived through for the past three or four years, it’s a small price to pay,” he said. 

He acknowledged that the problems may have just moved to other areas of town that are closer to the shelter. 

And with fears that economic hardship could lead to a spike in homelessness, that makes finding housing all the more urgent for service providers like Catholic Social Services, which operates Brother Francis. 

Lisa Aquino, the executive director of Catholic Social Services, said so far, the agency has had success on that front. With caseworkers in-house and around the city, she said they’ve moved 250 individuals from shelter to housing, as well as helped keep 300 more from losing their housing. 

Aquino said she’s hoping the city will continue the active role in funding the homeless shelter that started with the pandemic. 

“I think some people are more ready to be housed right now than they might have been before, just because there’s been a change,” she said. “And sometimes that’s what it takes. It just takes a change.”