Seeking shelter: ‘Survive or don’t survive, but I do my best’
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - On Sept. 18 just before 4 p.m., Anchorage Police found the body of 36-year-old Kou Yang.
Yang was found dead off Tudor Road, inside a port-a-potty. Police reported that he had been dead for “quite some time,” but wrote that nothing suspicious was noted at the scene.
According to police records, Yang was the 16th person to die outside in Anchorage in 2022. That number does not include people who were taken to a hospital and died later, or people who died inside a shelter.
Before Yang’s death, 74-year-old Herman James’ body was found outside of a business on C Street. James was the oldest person declared dead who had been found outside in 2022. Bodies were found inside tents, behind businesses and on bike trails. People died outside in almost every part of Anchorage.
All of the people who died outside this year are listed as “not criminal in nature” or “nothing suspicious was found.”
Some of the people have been identified and their families were notified, some have not.
“Survive or don’t survive,” one man who identified himself as homeless told Alaska’s News Source.
Gil Jacko, who identified himself as homeless, said the key to sleeping outside in the winter is good gear and staying dry. Jacko says if his hands get wet he only has about 30 minutes until his skin starts to burn from the cold.
“When it gets really cold I go to the shelter over here,” Jacko said, pointing to the Sullivan Arena.
He started bundling up his belongings and putting everything inside a baby carriage. Jacko led a reporter and photographer around Midtown, pointing out the best places to look through dumpsters.
“Candles are very good,” Jacko said while he was sitting inside a dumpster, surrounded by bags of garbage in Fairview. He was hoping to find a cigarette.
“Anything worth it in there?” Jacko was asked.
“Not really,” Jacko said.
Jacko says everyone knows someone who has died outside, or they’ve come close to dying themselves.
“The older you get, the harder it is for you,” Jacko said.
Outside the Sullivan Arena, in a wooded area by a stream, stolen bicycles were stacked together. One pile was higher than 5 feet. A box full of frozen organic bananas had turned black. A machete was dropped outside a collapsed tent.
“It’s very, very cold and you get hungry and thirsty,” a man named John said about sleeping outside near the Sullivan Arena. “It’s not a good place to be. I wouldn’t advise being homeless if you can help it.”
The Anchorage Police department’s list for outdoor deaths increased this year over, compared to the past two years. In 2020 there were 20 deaths and in 2021 there were 19. The first death outside for this year was on Jan. 5 when 45-year-old Luther Aguchak was found on the trails behind Mulcahy Stadium.
“There was nothing suspicious at the scene,” the case file reported.
There were 21 outdoor deaths by Nov. 1, with additional deaths happening through December. Some of the people who died haven’t been identified. Police don’t say the people who have died outside are homeless, but they are often people associated with camping in the city in unauthorized areas. According to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, most unhoused people are men.
Catholic Social Services, through the Brother Francis Shelter, says it shelters more than 150 people a day. The organization says its needs grew as COVID-19 spread across the state, which lead to increased food insecurity and extra housing.
“Before someone can start thinking about housing, and before someone can start thinking about updating their resume, and before someone can start thinking about finding income and your job, they need to know that they’re safe,” David Rittenberg Sr, the director of adult homeless services with CSS said. “They need to know where their next meal is coming from, they need to know that they have a warm, safe place to stay at that night.”
Substance abuse and mental health are also barriers to housing. Paul Polty had black scars on his face and frostbite on his hands. He says he’s been living outside for about 10 years.
“I’ve been struggling on the streets with alcoholism,” Polty said.
He says it’s hard to fall asleep when you’re cold. Kevin Neay, who says he sees himself as an advocate for the homeless, walked down Fourth Avenue with a blanket around his shoulders.
“Survive or don’t survive, but I do my best,” Neay said.
A woman named Molly said she sleeps at her sister’s house and under trees.
“I just cuddle under the Christmas tree and walk around and look for cardboard or anything and just sleep under the Christmas tree like this,” Molly said, motioning to a tree with branches weighted down by heavy snow.
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