Anchorage residents demand solution to homeless problem, but who’s responsible?

Residents and city leaders have varying opinions on the best way to address homelessness
Anchorage residents demand solution to homeless problem, but who’s responsible?
Published: Dec. 20, 2022 at 7:22 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The situation of homeless Anchorage residents has many people demanding something be done to solve the problem.

The solution may lie in determining whose responsibility it is to step in and help. However, finding that answer is not always easy, and may depend upon who is asked.

Safety ambassadors employed by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership work with people who are unsheltered and have no place to sleep but on the streets or under the awnings of nearby businesses. The partnership is funded by downtown business owners in Anchorage who want to ensure the streets are clear for tourists and pedestrians, while providing homeless residents with resources that may help their situation.

The safety ambassadors begin clearing the downtown streets before businesses open. In October, they encountered one man, Derek Angi, huddled on the concrete.

“Will you help me?” Angi said.

“With what?” Safety Ambassador Ray Gilkey said.

“With my life,” Angi said.

Angi is one of many people who call the cold streets of downtown home. He says he moved to Anchorage 23 years ago from the small city of Gambell, which has a population of less than 700. Angi says he feels like he doesn’t fit in anywhere.

“I think I have a mental illness,” Angi said. “I think that’s it. I’ve developed mental illness.”

Social service workers say Angi is one of many. They say many people become displaced because of mental illness or substance abuse problems.

“A lot of blankets being thrown away out here. Yup, every time they get up,” Gilkey said. “Needles, broken pipes, tin foil, all kinds of stuff out here.”

In mid-October, the ambassadors made their rounds, interacting with anyone who was still sleeping in front of businesses just before they were set to open.

“This is downtown partnership, you okay?” Safety Ambassador Vander Blue said.

“It’s seven o’clock, we’re waking everybody up,” Gilkey told one man huddled in front of a store.

At the Anchorage Center for the Performing Arts, two people were found on the landing of the staircase, sleeping beneath a winter jacket.

“Hey, you guys,” Gilkey said. “Time to wake up.”

At a gift store, one man who was sleeping under a blue blanket wasn’t happy to be woken up.

“Why don’t you leave me the f*** alone?” the man said to Blue and Gilkey.

“It’s not something that we, as a community, should accept, you know, that type of behavior,” Fairview Community Council President Allen Kemplen said.

Kemplen represents the residents of Fairview, where the Sullivan Arena is located. The arena serves as the city’s main winter emergency shelter. Kemplen says Fairview residents are frustrated and feel the homeless situation in their neighborhood is out of control.

“You’ll see them roaming around the neighborhoods, in people’s backyards,” Kemplen said. “You got anything to lose, it’s gone.”

Kemplen says Fairview residents have born the burden long enough and feels the responsibility of sheltering people should be shared by other Anchorage communities.

“People, they forgot to lock their doors and, you know, someone’s in their house and they turned around and said, ‘what’s that sound? And there’s somebody, a stranger,” Kemplen said. “The frustration from the neighbors is that; ‘why, why are we doing this to ourselves?’”

According to Kemplen, people in the Sullivan Arena are not the problem — it’s the ones who leave or refuse to go in the first place. Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson agrees.

“20 to 40% of the people that are living outdoors will not, and I’m being told by the experts it’s closer to the 40%, will not go indoors,” Bronson said. “For various reasons, one of the big ones is is, when you go indoors then you start losing access to drugs and alcohol.”

Bronson says he supports helping those who want to help themselves, and he can’t force people to change.

“I can’t arrest people and put them in an apartment somewhere,” Bronson said. “I don’t want to.”

But Kemplen does feel that people should be forced to change. As a military veteran, he feels people should be allowed three strikes and, if they can’t behave themselves, they’re out.

“In my mind, we’d set up a, kind of like a civic boot camp, you know, out in Eklutna area,” Kemplen said. “I’d say look, you can stay out here, really as long as you want, right,but if you want to enjoy the benefits of the city, right, then you have to earn, you have to show that you can be a good citizen.”

Kemplen envisions a boot camp to house homeless people who don’t conform to society’s norms.

“The more we focus on punishing and criminalizing, just moving people, the further we are from the goal of actually resolving the problem,” Anchorage Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant said. “There is an answer to the issue of homelessness, it’s housing.”

But for people who haven’t found an escape from homelessness like Angi, those answers may never come.

“I don’t know, I’m struggling,” Angi said. “It’s, homelessness is a struggle.”

Mayor Bronson’s administration recently asked the Assembly to approve an immediate increase of 160 beds at Sullivan Arena, which would bring the shelter’s total capacity to 360 people. Assembly members took no action to review the proposal during the regular meeting. The administration must now put the proposal on the regular agenda for a meeting Tuesday, for Assembly members to review it.