Local homeless population difficult to define

Thursday, June 29, 2017 - 13:24
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann A sign marks private property at the corner of Spring Brook Drive and North Eagle River Loop Road on June 12, 2017. A homeless camp was located here earlier in the year.

Earlier this summer, Anchorage Parks and Recreation director John Rodda received word of something unusual on a patch of Eagle River parkland: A makeshift campsite.

Throughout the Anchorage Bowl, he receives similar reports almost daily, he said; tents pop up in greenbelts and wooded areas from South Anchorage to Downtown. In Chugiak-Eagle River, though, it’s rare.

“Just the occasional phone call,” Rodda said. “We haven’t seen the quantity or the population, if you will.”

While homelessness in Chugiak-Eagle River is far less visible than other places, it still exists, affecting a wide spectrum of people in a variety of circumstances.

Tents in the woods are just the tip of the iceberg, according to municipal officials. Single people, families, kids and adults have all struggled to keep roofs over their heads. At the Chugiak-Eagle River Food Pantry, clients live in all kinds of situations, according to volunteers. One man lives in a hallway above a local bar, they said; another cooks his meals in the microwave at a local gas station. Some clients rely on campfires or portable propane stoves.

“We serve people that are living in cars, living in tents, living out in the woods, sharing mobile homes,” said Betty Jo Worthington, pantry manager. “It just varies.”

There is no concrete count of the number of people living homeless in Chugiak-Eagle River, said Nancy Burke, the Municipality of Anchorage’s homeless and housing coordinator. According to a recent citywide estimate, approximately 840 homeless adults live in Anchorage. Around 79 camped outside in the Anchorage Bowl this past winter — down from 118 the previous year, Burke said. At a recent Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce meeting, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said homeless numbers are going down in the muni.

Outside the Anchorage Bowl, the numbers grow fuzzier.

The only way the municipality tracks homelessness in Chugiak-Eagle River is via reports about homeless camps in the area, according to municipal officials. A special page at muni.org allows residents to submit online camp reports — including the location, the kind of camp and other relevant details.

Camping on parkland within the Municipality of Anchorage is illegal, and if a homeless camp is found on public property, members of the Anchorage Police Department’s Community Action Policing Team post a 15-day abatement notice, municipal officials said. As of June 12, the CAP team had yet to post any abatement notices in Chugiak-Eagle River this year, according to APD spokeswoman Renee Oistad.

Across Chugiak-Eagle River, camp reports are few and far between. They’re often centered around Downtown Eagle River, within walking distance of the bus station and the food pantry. Neighbors have seen a camp in the woods above Fred Meyer, and a camp on private property off Spring Brook Drive.

“My suspicion is if people are really becoming homeless, they probably are coming in to Anchorage,” Burke said.

Most municipal social services are clustered in Downtown and Midtown Anchorage, Burke said. Besides the two local food pantries, open just a few times a week, there are no shelters or soup kitchens in Chugiak-Eagle River. Of the 16 or 17 churches that volunteer through the municipality to shelter homeless families in the winter, none are located in Chugiak-Eagle River, Burke said. For people struggling with homelessness in the northern areas of Chugiak, the options are even more limited.

“It’s actually something I’ve been trying to think about,” she said. “How do we support the regions like Peters Creek?”

Of the approximately 600 families who go through the Chugiak-Eagle River Food Pantry every month, about half of them come from Chugiak, said Worthington, the pantry manager. Many of food pantry clients rely on bus transportation: When bus service to Peters Creek ends in October, neither food pantry volunteers nor clients are sure what will happen next.

When it comes to homelessness, though, uncertainty is par for the course. Municipal officials are unsure how many Chugiak-Eagle River residents struggle with homelessness in the first place. Camp reports are just one piece of the puzzle, and other forms of homelessness are even more difficult to understand.

“We’re really trying to get our minds around how to identify the couch surfing, the doubling up,” Burke said. “It’s really hard to get a handle on it.”

Homeless youth are another issue entirely, officials said. Every year since 2008, the Anchorage School District has identified more than 2,000 homeless students throughout the district.

They’re in Chugiak and in Eagle River, too, but the numbers are hard to find.

“They come and they go,” Rodda said. “Where they come and go from, I couldn’t honestly tell you.”

Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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