Exempt from hunkering down, some homeless choosing tents over shelters

Published: Apr. 13, 2020 at 9:54 PM AKDT
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Limited resources and an exemption from Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s “hunker down” emergency order are making it difficult for Anchorage to keep its population of individuals experiencing homelessness distanced during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are allowing those people essentially free range of the downtown,” Downtown Anchorage Assembly Member Christopher Constant said at a work session Monday. “They can be wherever they want because we’re not engaging in any sort of abatement practices.”

Constant and several other assembly members questioned officials at the worksession as to what could be done about the number of homeless individuals not taking advantage of the shelter system the city has put in place.

Officials offered few immediate solutions, but identified some major factors preventing them from getting more people into the shelters. The first issue is information.

“Shelter locations and accessibility, food locations and accessibility, mail services, all of that has changed,” said Jasmine Boyle, executive director of the Coalition to End Homelessness. “We haven’t had a chance to get out to the community of unsheltered people and tell them that everything has changed.”

Boyle said that many homeless individuals simply aren’t aware of the full extent of the pandemic, or the measure to which the city has responded. That lack of information ties into another major roadblock for the city: resources.

“The people who understand how to engage and do this work are very few,” said Nancy Burke, Housing and Homeless Services Coordinator for the Mayor’s office. “There’s maybe three or five of us, and we’re all tied up.”

Many who would normally help with the abatement process are fully dedicated to keeping the city’s emergency shelters up and running, leaving few extra personnel for abatement. There’s money to hire seasonal staff, but it wasn’t supposed to be used until May.

“If they hire before May, it means we short-end our season before the end of October,” Burke said.

The city is also looking for some outside help as well. Burke said a request has been made to the state for the Alaska National Guard’s help in cleaning encampments this Summer, but the city has not received a response.

Still, Constant and and Midtown Assembly Member Meg Zaletel asked how the city could address the encampments sooner. Zaletel has

that would amend the hunker down emergency order to require homeless individuals seek shelter if it’s available. However, the order ends that same night, so it’s unclear how that would affect future emergency orders.

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