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Spring reveals a mess on Anchorage's trails, and a vexing conversation about homelessness

Michelle Theriault Boots, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska on

Published in News & Features

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Somewhere on the Campbell Creek trail, an abandoned campsite stretches from the bank of the creek all the way to the asphalt of the trail. There are bike wheels and wet wipes and tarps and tires. There are empty pill bottles and wet bloated pages of books. Amid unfurling ferns and shoots of cow parsnip, there are signs of a fire.

It's a scene repeated along Anchorage's greenbelts and trail systems: A sprawling camp on the banks of Chester Creek, with American flags hoisted from trees. A person eking out a spot for a sleeping bag under an overpass. A patch of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail where tents are strung up along the mudflats.

Camps in Anchorage's green spaces are nothing new. But entering a third summer of unstable shelter options for an unhoused population the city estimates at about 900, there's a sense that things are different this spring. Officials, trail users and unhoused people themselves say they are seeing more camps, more ecological damage and more destruction.

Trash in camps has gone "through the roof," said Alexis Johnson, the city's homeless coordinator. "I think that has changed drastically."

The "landscape of homelessness" in Anchorage can change so much in a year, she said.

Some say they feel heartbroken by the state of Anchorage's trails at the same time they feel compassion for homeless people trying to make it in the city. They remind that unhoused people face dire threats to their health and safety daily. Ten have died so far this year.

 

Others are just fed up.

It's likely that outdoor camping will only increase: In addition to the roughly 560 people the city estimates are living in Anchorage greenbelts, as of June 1 the 160 or so people living in non-congregate shelter rooms at the Aviator Hotel will be out on the street. The city hopes to secure state funding to continue operation of a separate congregate shelter operating off the Old Seward Highway that currently houses 197 residents, with possible help from the Anchorage Assembly. A U.S. Supreme Court decision anticipated in June may change the rules for cleaning up existing camps.

But even if the city has more latitude to clear camps, a core issue remains: People who have nowhere indoors to live will live outside in Anchorage public spaces. The city parks department hears regularly from people who are upset by camps in city green spaces, and some who say they no longer use the trails because of them.

"What breaks my heart is when people stop going out on the trails because they no longer feel safe," said Mike Braniff, the city's director of parks and recreation.

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(c)2024 the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska). Visit the Alaska Dispatch News (Anchorage, Alaska) at www.adn.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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