Anchorage business owners hire safety ambassadors to manage homeless situation downtown

Anchorage Downtown Partnership strives to maintain a balance between security and compassion
Business owners are taking action to help manage interactions between homeless Anchorage residents and patrons Downtown.
Published: Oct. 25, 2022 at 7:40 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Business owners are taking action to help manage interactions between homeless Anchorage residents and patrons Downtown.

Many business owners say the presence of homeless Anchorage residents has been driving away tourists and is simply bad for business, which is why they’re working with the Anchorage Downtown Partnership to help manage the situation as a balancing act of maintaining security while showing human compassion.

ADP employees who have direct contact with the homeless are called safety ambassadors. The duties of safety ambassadors include waking up homeless people who sleep on downtown streets, calling police if they don’t comply and trying to find help for those who have no other place to go. Their job isn’t for everyone, as it can be both heartbreaking and dangerous at times.

Safety ambassadors Ray Gilkey and Vander Blue begin their day well before daylight, hours before businesses open their doors.

“We walk up and down 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th,” Gilkey said. “We go around and wake up the homeless and help them out when they need help.”

Gilkey has been on the job for a couple of years and sees all kinds of people who are down on their luck.

“Some of them in the door, the doorways, some laying on the sidewalk,” Gilkey said.

Gilkey and Blue head to the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, a place where homeless Anchorage residents often seek refuge at night.

“Somebody up here,” Gilkey hollers.

Gilkey and Blue walk up the stairs and find two homeless Anchorage residents huddled together on the stairwell landing.

“Hey you guys, time to wake up,” Gilkey tells the couple, who remains covered beneath a winter jacket.

“Time to get up. They’re going to be opening up shop.” Blue said as the couple begins waking up.

As they continue their walk through Downtown Anchorage, the safety ambassadors notice another couple sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes in the doorway of a business.

“They’re blocking that doorway but they don’t use that door, so we’ll wait about 30 minutes and we’ll come back around and get them up,” Gilkey said as he tries to show a little compassion for those is this situation. “Nobody likes being woken up early in the morning...They don’t really have no place to go. For some reason they don’t like going down to the Sullivan.”

The Sullivan Arena is currently housing some of the homeless Anchorage residents, but not all prefer to stay there. Social workers say a large percentage of the homeless population is experiencing substance abuse issues or mental health problems and don’t always know what to do or where to turn for help, while others simply don’t want the help.

“A lot of times they, they don’t want to get up and when they don’t want to get up then we’ve got to call the police, sometimes they want to try to fight,” Gilkey says.

“A lot of times we see a guy like that acting up we’ll have, to a tourist or something, we’ll come and try to calm him down, stop him and call the cops,” said Gilkey.

While walking near the old courthouse, one homeless man approached Gilkey and Blue for help. He identified himself as Derek Angi. When asked what he was struggling with, Angi replied, “I don’t know, I’m, I think I have mental illness, I think that’s it.”

“There’s a guy sitting here and he says he wants to talk to somebody,” Gilkey said, as he got on the radio to his supervisor. “He said he needs, he needs some kind of, he wants to talk to somebody about help, help with his life.”

Soon a service worker met up with Angi to provide him with guidance and resources that could potentially help his situation.

The ADP says its goal is to strike a balance between keeping homeless Anchorage residents off the street while striving to maintain their dignity and well-being. The ADP is hired and paid by area business owners.