Parents raise tough questions after son dies in Anchorage homeless camp

Published: Mar. 5, 2020 at 1:34 PM AKST
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It’s been one of the most difficult times in Edward and Mary Savage’s lives since their adopted son, Joshua Tauge died in early February.

While they continue to grieve, they are looking for answers and taking action following Tauge’s death.

Tauge had been living in a homeless camp near Bean’s Café for about six months before he died of a gunshot wound. Police told Channel 2 on the day of the shooting that it was a suicide, but the Savage family and friends of Tauge aren’t convinced.

However, at this point, they said all they care about is the fact that their son is dead.

Edward Savage said that he’d changed from the happy and enthusiastic son he had in the months leading up to his death.

“He’s homeless, living in a tent, I don’t know, maybe he’s on drugs and alcohol,” he said.

Both Mary and Edward have grim memories of trying to pull Tauge out of the camp.

“He’d stand there and smile at us and say, ‘mom, I’m okay. Don’t worry about me,’” Mary Savage said, “and I’d beg him to come home.”

The parents said they had stressed to their son on multiple occasions that he was always allowed to come home on the condition that he remain sober and get a job.

Now, they raise difficult questions around their son’s death for which there are no simple answers.

The biggest issue they have is around the way shelter services are implemented in Anchorage. The Savage’s acknowledges that these services help a lot of people who need it. However, for their healthy son who was in his 30’s when he died, they said they felt that the lifestyle he was living was enabling him.

“All they’re doing is helping them die by giving them free, free, free,” Edward Savage said, “one day they should say, ‘no, go to work. Go home,’ but don’t give them free.”

Executive Director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, Jasmine Boyle said services to help the homeless find jobs and housing do exist. At the same time, they are difficult to maintain.

“In the last year we’ve lost a lot of that shelter case management support,” Boyle said, “so our shelters in town do unfortunately look and feel like places to be safe and warm versus places to get all of the help you may need.”

She added that, in the past, those kinds of services were much easier to find within the shelters that Tauge was using.

Boyle said precious funding for housing programs has taken a big hit in recent years as well.

“Two big funds we talk about with the state of Alaska are called the Housing Assistance Program, HAP, and Special Needs Housing Grant,” Boyle said, “both of those programs were instituted in 2009 for the state of Alaska. If you look at 2019 dollar amounts to the 2009 dollar amounts we’ve gone down a bit. If you factor in inflation we’ve actually lost about 27%.”

Boyle said those housing programs and case management services are the most proven ways to lower homeless rates but are the most difficult to fund and staff.

While the Savage family feels that shelter services weren’t helping their son, they also feel that the fact the camp he was in wasn’t cleared out also contributed to his death.

“If you go by there, the tents are there,” Mary Savage said, “next time you go by, the tents are down. A few days later the tents are back up. The police don’t go back and just shut it down and block it off.”

At the camp, multiple signs say there’s no camping allowed, however, when Channel 2 reporters went with the Savage’s to the camp on March 4th, there were several tents with occupants living in them.

Boyle reminds there is an abatement procedure in the municipality. However, they tend to be much more strictly enforced in the summer months. Even then, there does tend to be a cycle of the homeless moving from one camp to the next.

The Savage family said they don’t know what kind of substances their son was using in the camps, but they full-heartedly believe drugs or alcohol played a role in his death.

Before he went to live on the streets, they also said that he never showed signs that looked like mental instability to them. This added to their doubt that Tauge would kill himself.

Steve Williams with the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority said these cases are unique to everyone who experiences them.

“Not everyone who experiences a mental health disorder or a substance use disorder is going to be homeless or is homeless,” Williams said, “So the population itself – the homeless population – is very diverse and the circumstances are very individual.”

Still, funding for drug abuse and mental illness services has also dwindled in recent years. Boyle and Williams acknowledge that increased resources for those kinds of services would very likely lead to fewer people experiencing homelessness.

Boyle added that many people will develop mental health issues or start to abuse drugs and alcohol as a result of becoming homeless. It’s not always the other way around.

Since their son died, the Savage’s have been trying to cope while trying to raise thousands of dollars for Tauge’s funeral. They said they have the money together and his services will commence on March 6th almost a month later.

Before they say goodbye, and probably for the rest of their lives, they are left wondering if they could have done anything differently to help Joshua.

They said they hope sharing their story will help other parents’ children’s lives have a better ending.

“I would do things better,” Edward Savage said, “I’d come down here and I’d drag him out of this camp. I’d drag him home.”

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