Municipality speaks on resources, future of campground at Centennial Park

The changes at the campground at Centennial Park in the last few weeks have become a point of contention for many in the community.
Published: Jul. 18, 2022 at 11:19 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The changes at the campground at Centennial Park in the last few weeks have become a point of contention for many in the community, and even for some of the people who are living there right now.

However, most share a common goal: get as many people housed as possible, as soon as possible, and in the meantime, keep them as safe as possible, wherever they may be.

“There’s a lot of different factors that come into play into placing people into the appropriate shelters or permanent housing,” said Corey Allen Young, a spokesperson for the Office of Mayor Dave Bronson. “When (those staying at Centennial) were doing the camping in some of the places that were illegal, they didn’t have access to services like showers, or bathrooms or even security.”

The Municipality of Anchorage, including the Office of Mayor Dave Bronson, maintains it is working hard to protect and help the people who are staying at the campground, even those who have chosen to camp instead of taking other options such as brick-and-mortar shelters.

“What we’re doing here, opening the campgrounds by waiving the fee, and creating a legal place for folks to camp,” said Mike Braniff, who heads the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department, “if they’re coming from an illegal camp, contrasting that with an illegal camp, some of the areas in town, there’s a stark, vast difference between what you see in those places and what you see here.”

The municipality said Monday that case managers and others arrive daily to help those living at the campground find opportunities for work and housing. Not everyone, however, can say they’ve seen that support, particularly those who are recent arrivals.

“I felt like I had no choice,” Louis Gibson, who recently arrived to stay at the campground, said. “We were camping out on the Coastal Trail, but we moved. You know, it’s been hard for us. They’re just putting us up here to put up with us, and it’s not good enough. They need to have programs to get people off the street, because everyone out here is suffering.”

The question of resources also remains. Several people at the campground Monday said certain supplies, such as toilet paper, were running short.

Multiple residents did, however, say they have been seeing security on the grounds consistently.

“Security is doing great,” Gibson said. “Security down here is doing a great job. Don’t get me wrong. They walk around all day and night.”

But is that enough?

A violent altercation was reported at the campground over the weekend, with the Anchorage Police Department saying in a prepared statement that a 29-year-old man was in a physical altercation with another individual on the site. The man allegedly assaulted responding officers and was combative during treatment at a local hospital, and was later charged with various counts of resisting, disorderly conduct, escape and assault.

Still, the department that oversees some of the teams roving the campground said the outcome could’ve been different had it happened somewhere else.

“I think because we make regular routes, because we have people staffing this 24 hours a day, and because the folks that are working for us are out on their feet, seeing what’s going on, that incident could’ve been much worse than it was,” Braniff said. “And frankly, a life was saved over the weekend as well [...] I doubt that would’ve been the case in any of the other camps around town — because nobody is there to do it.”

The opinion on the grounds depends on who is asked. Some find it comfortable, but others indicated Monday that they’d rather be anywhere else. A mutual feeling, however, is that work still needs to be done.

“We know that it’s been a campground for decades,” Young said. “Yes, this has been a temporary solution, but this is not part of the permanent plan. People young and old will tell you this is where they want to live. I’m not saying that’s the solution, because ultimately, we want to get people in permanent housing.

“I think it’s good we’re trying to give them a place to do that safely,” he continued. “I guess I would ask that people have a little compassion.”

The Anchorage Health Department has taken charge of the transitioning of people from the campground to shelters and other forms of housing. The department’s Tyler Sachtleben said in an email Monday that while 510 people were at one point housed at Sullivan Arena — which was shuttered as an emergency mass shelter on June 30 — about 400 people have been placed in housing since last fall, with 50 placed during the last week of operations for the Sullivan Arena.

Fifty-eight people from the mass shelter went to Centennial Park upon the closure of Sullivan, despite being offered options of other shelter, Sachtleben said. He added that 180 people are now at Centennial, with about 120 of them coming in from illegal camps.

Multiple people at the campground declined to go on camera, but were willing to share some of their stories anyway, with the vast majority saying they are utilizing the space temporarily in hopes of getting into homes of their own soon.

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