ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Shawn Steik and his wife were forced from a long-term motel room onto the streets of Anchorage after their rent shot up to $800 a month. Now they live in a tent encampment by a train depot, and as an Alaska winter looms they are growing desperate and fearful of what lies ahead.
A proposal last week by Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson to buy one-way plane tickets out of Alaska’s biggest city for its homeless residents gave Steik a much-needed glimmer of hope. He would move to the relative warmth of Seattle.
“I heard it’s probably warmer than this place,” said Steik, who is Aleut.
But the mayor’s unfunded idea also came under immediate attack as a Band-Aid solution glossing over the tremendous, and still unaddressed, crisis facing Anchorage as a swelling homeless population struggles to survive in a unique and extreme environment. Frigid temperatures stalk the homeless in the winter and bears infiltrate homeless encampments in the summer.
A record eight people died of exposure while living outside last winter and this year promises to be worse after the city closed an arena that housed 500 people during the winter months. Bickering between the city’s liberal assembly and its conservative mayor about how to address the crisis, and a lack of state funding, have further stymied efforts to find a solution.
With winter fast approaching in Alaska, it’s “past time for state and local leaders to address the underlying causes of homelessness — airplane tickets are a distraction, not a solution,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska said in a statement to The Associated Press.
About 43% of Anchorage’s more than 3,000 unsheltered residents are Alaska Natives, and Bronson’s proposal also drew harsh criticism from those who called it culturally insensitive.
“The reality is there is no place to send these people because this is their land. Any policy that we make has to pay credence to that simple fact. This is Dena’ina land, this is Native land,” said Christopher Constant, chair of the Anchorage Assembly. “And so we cannot be supporting policies that would take people and displace them from their home, even if their home is not what you or I would call home.”
Bronson’s airfare proposal caps a turbulent few years as Anchorage, like many cities in the U.S. West, struggles to deal with a burgeoning homeless population.
In May, the city shut down the 500-bed homeless shelter in the city’s arena so it could once more be used for concerts and hockey games after neighbors complained about open drug use, trespassing, violence and litter. A plan to build a large shelter and navigation center fell through when Bronson approved a contract without approval from the Anchorage Assembly.
That leaves a gaping hole in the city’s ability to house the thousands of homeless people who have to contend with temperatures well below zero for days at a time and unrelenting winds blasting off Cook Inlet. At the end of June, Anchorage was estimated to have a little more than 3,150 homeless people, according to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. Last week, there were only 614 beds at shelters citywide, with no vacancies.
New tent cities have sprung up across Anchorage this summer: on a slope facing the city’s historic railroad depot, on a busy road near the Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson and near soup kitchens and shelters downtown.
Assembly members are slated to consider a winter stop-gap option in August falling far short of the need: a large, warmed, tent-like structure for 150 people.
Summer brings its own challenges: hungry bears last year roamed a city-owned campground where homeless people were resettled after the arena closed. Wildlife officials killed four bears after they broke into tents.
Bronson said he prefers to spend a few hundred dollars per person for a plane ticket rather than spending about $100 daily to shelter and feed them. He said he doesn’t care where they want to go; his job is to “make sure they don’t die on Anchorage streets.”
It’s not clear if his proposal will move forward. There is not yet a plan or a funding source.
Dr. Ted Mala, an Inupiaq who in 1990 became the first Alaska Native to serve as the state’s health commissioner, said Anchorage should be working with social workers and law enforcement to discover people’s individual reasons for homelessness and connect them with resources.
Buying the unsheltered a ticket to another city is a political game that’s been around for years. A number of U.S. cities struggling with homelessness, including San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have also offered bus or plane tickets to homeless residents.
“People are not pawns, they’re human beings,” Mala said.
The mayor’s proposal, while focused on warmer cities, also would fund tickets to other Alaska locations for those who want them.
Clarita Clark became homeless after her medical team wanted her to move from Point Hope to Anchorage for cancer treatment because Anchorage is warmer. The medical facility wouldn’t allow her husband to stay with her, so they pitched a tent in a sprawling camp to stay together.
Having recently found the body of a dead teenager who overdosed in a portable toilet, Clark yearns to return to the Chukchi Sea coastal village of Point Hope, where her three grandchildren live.
“I got a family that loves me,” she said, adding she would use the ticket and seek treatment closer to home.
Danny Parish also is leaving Alaska, but for another reason: He’s fed up.
Parish is selling his home of 29 years because it sits directly across the street from Sullivan Arena. Bad acts by some homeless people — including harassment, throwing vodka bottles in his yard, poisoning his dog and using his driveway as a toilet — made his life “a holy hell,” he said.
Parish is convinced the arena will be used again this winter since there isn’t another plan.
He, too, hopes to move to the contiguous U.S. — Oregon, for starters — but not before asking Anchorage leaders for his own plane ticket out.
“If they’re going to give them to everybody else,” Parish said, “then they need to give me one.”