Seeking Shelter: Centennial Park Campground could be a homeless camp — again

Seeking Shelter: Centennial Park Campground could be a homeless camp — again
Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 3:56 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Dotting the flower garden in front of Connie Ernst’s home are little purple flowers, grouped tightly together, approximately the size of a golf ball.

“Those are purple drumstick primroses,” Ernst said.

The front yard of her home is mostly flowers along with a few white Grecian-style busts wearing sunglasses.

“I finally caught on to the skill of growing blue poppies,” Ernst said.

Ernst is one of hundreds of homeowners who live near Centennial Park Campground, which the Municipality of Anchorage used as a homeless camp last summer — and it could be a homeless camp again this summer.

Hundreds of homeless people camped at the site for more than three months while there was chilly weather, rain, mud, trash, black bear raids and uncertainty.

It was a temporary solution after Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration shut down the COVID-era shelter at the Sullivan Arena, which the city had operated for more than two years.

But people in this area say the problems at the temporary sanctioned homeless camp often spilled into the neighborhood. They tell stories of stolen bikes and homes being broken into. But Ernst says she’s empathetic to the people sheltering at the campsite.

“I don’t want to see it happen again, but I understand. And especially if there is not 200-plus people like it was last year, I wouldn’t be so opposed to it. But the mayor and the Assembly need to get their act together and get something permanent and get it resolved,” Ernst said. “I’m tired of them not working together.”

Down the road from her house, a for sale sign sat in front of the house closest to the campsite.

The city can’t legally clear homeless camps, a process it calls abatement, unless there is shelter available. The group tasked with finding solutions to shelter the homeless — the Sanctioned Camp Community Task Force — recently recommended more than a handful of sanctioned camp locations.

It again includes the Centennial Park Campground. But this time, there would be space for 50 to 70 people and limited to only tent campers. It would close on Sept. 4 of this year.

Many here say this neighborhood has already taken the brunt of not having permanent housing options for a vulnerable population.

“I don’t know the answer,” said Sharon Jackson, who also lives here. “But I’m thinking of putting my place up for sale too. I mean, I’ve been here 34 years, I raised my kids here — for God’s sake, I got trees planted in the yard for the family members who have passed away, in memory, and I had planned on living here until I died.”

Jackson says she’ll put her home up for sale next spring.

“It’s going to be hard to leave here because my girls grew up here. Just thinking about it makes me sad, and they call this home. But we’ll have to make a new home somewhere,” Jackson said.

Bronson’s administration says it will not pursue a plan to allow people experiencing homelessness to camp at Centennial Campground as it did last summer, which generated concern in the community.

During the winter months, eight Alaska state legislators representing East Anchorage sent a letter to Bronson asking the mayor to reject the area as a temporary shelter.

“Not only would such an action be a clear and knowing violation of municipal law, but as the humanitarian crisis at Centennial Park last year sadly demonstrated, it would be unsafe and inhumane for campers and neighboring residents,” lawmakers said in the letter.

Fish and Game also killed five black bears in the area after they became a problem when they were lured to the campsite by trash.

“Centennial Campground staff are doing the best they can to manage the campground and minimize attractants, but there are still a lot of tents with food in them”, Anchorage Area Biologist Dave Battle said in a news release July 6 of 2022. “Until that changes, more bears are going to come into the campground and get into tents. That’s a safety issue both for the people staying there now and anyone who stays there after them. Killing any particular bear is a very temporary solution. There are always going to be more bears in that vicinity because of its location, and we can’t teach bears not to eat what they can find.”

Close to Jackson’s home another homeowner pointed to three cameras he’d installed recently.

“I have lived here for 29 years and I bought this house originally mainly because of the park,” Ernst said.