In Anchorage, some homeless people would rather die than give up their way of life
About this project
This article is part of a series by Al Jazeera America highlighting the lives of America's homeless
By Julia O'Malley for Al Jazeera America
Photos by Nathaniel Wilder for Al Jazeera America
Multimedia and Graphics by Lam Thuy Vo
Above: A scene from a dismantled homeless camp in Anchorage taken on January 13, 2015. .
Published on Tuesday, February 17, 2015
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Few witness more closely the brutal deterioration that comes with a life of drinking in winter homeless camps than Anchorage Police Department Officer Araceli “Sally” Jones.
For the last 10 years, she’s been part of a special unit designed to build relationships with the homeless, particularly the several hundred people, mostly chronic alcoholics, who forgo shelters to live outside in this northern city’s large forested parks.
“Over the weeks, the months and the years, it takes its toll,” she said.
Here is what she observes: Skin dulls. Eyes lose their brightness. Sexual assaults are common among women who spend time in the camps. Many people bear evidence of physical assaults. And the cold eats at them. Fingertips, ears, toes and feet blister and turn black. Tissue dies and must be amputated.
When the weather slips below zero, Jones and other APD officers might cruise by the usual spots, the trails that zigzag into the snowy forests, the tents carefully hidden under trees just yards from businesses. They keep an eye out for faces that have grown familiar.
“Sometimes you stop seeing them,” she said. “And you wonder, what happened to these people?”
For some of them, that answer comes weeks or months later when a body is discovered, frozen in an abandoned car or lying in the woods as snow melts. Some springs and summers over the last 10 years, there have been two or three bodies found; other years, it’s been more than 10, sparking rumors about a serial killer attacking street people. But Jones knows better.
Alaska, which is consistently among the 10 states with the highest rates of homelessness, is also one of the drunkest states in America, with some of the highest rates of alcohol consumption, alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse. The killer among street people, Jones knows, is inside the Monarch vodka, R&R whiskey and Listerine bottles that litter the camps. Most of the homeless Jones deals with have a blood alcohol content far higher than the legal limit to drive, or are mentally ill, or both. Nighttime temperatures in Anchorage can dip below freezing from October into April. It’s a deadly combination that, homeless advocates say, makes the city one of the most dangerous in the nation for unsheltered people. City officials have been struggling for years with what to do.
On a recent afternoon, Howard Jensen, 60, tramped down a steep, snowy hill on the forested edge of downtown Anchorage to a collection of tents under a stand of cottonwood trees. He’s been homeless on and off since the 1980s, he said. He prefers being outdoors to living in a shelter; the rules there are hard to follow and are enforced arbitrarily, he said.
“Just be with the wilderness, enjoy, have fun,” he said. “Nobody tell me what to do, what I can’t do, what I can do.”
A tent near him stirred. It had no tent poles, a common situation: Police take them to try to encourage campers to move on or go to a shelter. A younger man unzipped the opening. Jensen introduced him as his nephew, Mike, who declined to give his last name but said that he was 32.
Mike couldn’t go to the nearby Brother Francis Shelter, he said, because he’d been suspended for a few months for breaking the rules. Temperatures were warm that day, in the 20s, but had been bitter the week before, and Jensen admitted he sometimes worries about the cold.
“These days it takes me a couple of drinks just to go to sleep,” he said. “Yeah, I worry about it sometimes because I get out of control sometimes. I’m an inebriate. I been an inebriate for over 40 years.”
The week before, with temperatures in the single digits, Mike said, he waited in line at a nonprofit that offers 12 people showers every morning to warm up. When he wasn’t one of the lucky 12, he was offered tea, but that wasn’t enough to take away the chill. That said, he was confident he could survive outside until he was allowed back in the shelter.
“As long as you have some place to cover up at least to where your body heat can circulate and you can get warm, you’ll be OK,” he said.
Lawmakers, homeless advocates, housing organizations and law enforcement in Anchorage have been meeting for years to look at ways to stem the deaths among the chronic homeless. They are a constant presence on the streets of the city, especially downtown and in the central business district known as Midtown, full of office buildings and shops, where panhandling on street corners is common.
Over the last five years, officials have cracked down on loitering downtown and panhandling, worked to open churches as emergency shelters and sent officers like Jones to break up camps and offer referrals for social services. The biggest success in getting chronic homeless people off the streets, according to police and homeless advocates, has been one small housing project called Karluk Manor, part of the “housing first” movement. The project, which opened in late 2011, targets chronic alcoholics and offers housing without requiring that they quit drinking. The only problem: It houses fewer than 50 residents. Advocates and police would like more housing first units, but even the few existing ones are in jeopardy. State budget cuts proposed this month would shutter Karluk, putting its residents back on the street.
Video: Breaking up a homeless camp
More homeless people have moved into the shelter system, and the deaths seem to have slowed over recent years, but Jones says the misery she witnesses is as acute as ever. She wishes she had the power to get people somewhere warm and get them sober enough to see they could live a safer, healthier life, she said. Even a few nights in jail might do it, or required treatment. But that isn’t an option most of the time.
In this frontier state, shaped by a state constitution with strong protections for individual liberty and privacy, the law favors individual choices. If the weather is bitter and someone is drunk outside, jailing them or forcing them to go into treatment isn’t a legal option except in the most serious cases, where a person is clearly a danger to himself or others.
Getting homeless people to move their camps out of public parks usually requires about two weeks’ notice, due in part to a recent lawsuit on behalf of the homeless and against the city by the ACLU. Police say they can offer referrals or a ride to the shelter or sleep-off center. But if someone refuses help, there is little choice other than to let them be.
“It kind of breaks my heart and it also frustrates me, and the frustration leads to anger sometimes,” Jones said.
Joshua Decker is executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, which has been involved with a number of issues related to protecting the rights of homeless people in Anchorage. He said the solution to the city’s homeless problem is not breaking up camps, locking homeless people up or committing them involuntarily; it’s making more housing available. Salt Lake City, which has a smaller population than Anchorage, has tackled the issue by constructing housing-first-type units, he said.
“I think if you gave most individuals who are camping a choice between camping and having safe permanent housing, they are going to choose to live in a safe permanent house,” he said.
Several community groups are working on additional housing-first units in Anchorage, but nothing is imminent, said Melinda Freemon, director of the Anchorage Department of Health and Human Services.
“The municipality recognizes the effectiveness of the housing-first model,” she said.
Finding a facility isn’t easy, she said, and operating funds are a major hurdle. It costs more than $1 million annually to operate Karluk Manor.
“It’s much more difficult to find operating dollars, especially in light of the financial constraints right now in Alaska,” she said, referring to a looming state budget shortfall tied to the low price of oil.
Anchorage’s main emergency shelter, Brother Francis Shelter, sits on the edge of downtown next to the city’s largest soup kitchen, Bean’s Cafe. On any given day, hundreds of people mill in the parking lot and along the neighboring blocks. The shelter, run by Catholic Social Services, is often full in cold weather, with overflow sleeping on the floor of the soup kitchen. Estimates are rough, but advocates say the city’s homeless population is between 3,000 and 4,000.
The majority is only transiently without homes, said shelter director Lisa Caldeira. Some came to Alaska driven by the economic slump in the mainland, looking for seasonal work fishing or in the oil field, but found themselves without enough steady income. Some came to the city from the villages. Some are recently out of jail, she said. Sex offenders in particular have a hard time finding jobs and housing. Some are on fixed incomes, waiting for a spot on Anchorage’s long low-income-housing lists. (Finding a market-rate apartment in Anchorage isn’t easy: The vacancy rate for rentals is just over 3 percent. Rent for the average two-bedroom apartment is around $1,300.)
The chronic homeless camping population is a smaller group, maybe several hundred, Caldeira said. Their problems are complex. Substance abuse, mainly alcohol, is central. The shelter is “damp,” meaning that to sleep there, clients may be intoxicated but they may not drink. Some homeless people have addictions so severe that going without alcohol overnight can cause withdrawal symptoms, she said. For that reason, they may not sleep at Brother Francis.
“Not being staffed with medical professionals, we aren’t in a position to properly care after someone who is actively detoxing,” she said.
There are also rules to follow, including meeting with a caseworker. Fighting or carrying in drugs or alcohol can also mean being asked to leave for a period of time.
People living outside show up at Brother Francis to shower, eat dinner or spend a night. Some bounce between the shelter, the jail, the alcohol sleep-off, the psychiatric hospital and the emergency room. Shelter staff use what tools they have to encourage them to come inside, but sometimes there is nothing that can be done, Caldeira said. They lose people to exposure every year.
“I think Alaska is very true to being respectful of the individual and those choices they make, even though those choices may lead that person, I mean, to dying on the street.”
Leaving Bean’s Cafe on his way to his outdoor camp recently, Mark Ahvakana, 45, said he had been homeless on and off for a little over 12 years. He’s Inupiat Eskimo, originally from the community of Wainwright, a community on the north coast of Alaska. Alaska Natives, who are more likely to live in poverty than any other racial group in the state, are overrepresented in the homeless population.
Mark on avoiding the shelter
Lisa on working at the shelter
Araceli on the homeless
Ahvakana came to live in Anchorage, he said, because the costs of food and gas in the village are so high. He goes back home from time to time, he said, to help relatives with hunting and whaling. He said he didn’t drink much. He sometimes takes odd jobs or panhandles at intersections. He sleeps in a wooded area near a downtown office building with a few relatives, he said.
He isn’t afraid of freezing at night. He has a thick parka and sleeps on top of cardboard and under blankets. He’s accustomed to outdoor camping.
“I grew up basically hunting most of my life and camping,” he said. “Going upriver during the winter with snow machine and sled, long travel, good hunting too.”
The more dangerous thing, he said, is getting robbed or beaten up.
“I got jumped like three, four times; that scared me,” he said. His wallet was recently stolen, and he was waiting for a new ID card, he said, so he could try to find work.
It was about 10 degrees a few weeks ago when Jones and her partner Natasha Welch ventured into some wooded city parkland to find a large, hidden homeless camp. It had an outhouse and half a dozen tents, including a teepee with a fire pit smoldering inside.
The officers gathered the campers and told them the camp had to come down. They offered them forms that would pass their information along to housing and social service organizations. A few weeks later Anchorage police would find a woman dead in a similar camp nearby.
One of the campers, Larry Sauve, 58, complained loudly. He used to work in the oil fields but has been homeless for many years, he said. He is mentally ill and receives disability payments, but those aren’t enough to cover rent and food.
“I got to feed myself and everything on $1,100,” he said. Rent for an efficiency apartment in Anchorage usually starts at $700 or $800 per month.
He doesn’t have food stamps because he has an old drug charge, he said. Going to the shelter isn’t an option. It’s too crowded there and too loud, he said. And he drinks.
“I have a substance abuse problem and I have a tendency to go out and get drunk sometimes — not all the time,” he said.
He’s been out long enough to know how to keep from freezing to death, he said.
“I know how to build a fire, and I will build a fire if I have to,” he said.
If there were rooms available for people like him that didn’t require him to quit drinking, he’d consider coming inside. But for now, he’s camping indefinitely.
“I can’t live in a shelter, and there is no suitable alternative to being homeless,” he said.
Lam Thuy Vo contributed reporting to this story