ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – Shawn Steik and his wife were forced from a longtime motel room onto the streets of Anchorage after their rent rose to $800 a month. Now they live in a tented camp at a train depot, and as an Alaskan winter approaches, they become desperate and afraid of what lies ahead.
A proposal last week by Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson to buy one-way plane tickets out of Alaska’s largest city for its homeless residents gave Steik a much-needed glimmer of hope. He wanted to 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 that glossed over the enormous, and still untreated, crisis Anchorage faces 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 camps 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 over how to handle the crisis and a lack of state funding have further slowed efforts to find a solution.
As winter fast approaches in Alaska, it’s “time for state and local leaders to address the root causes of homelessness — airfares 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 Native, 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 have faith in that simple fact. This is Dena’ina land, this is indigenous land, ” said Christopher Constant, Speaker of the Anchorage Assembly. “And so we cannot support policies that will take people and displace them from their homes, even if their home is not what you or I would call home.”
Bronson’s air travel proposal spans a turbulent few years as Anchorage, like many cities in the western United States, struggles to deal with a growing homeless population.
In May, the city shut down the 500-bed homeless shelter in the city’s arena so it could be used again for concerts and hockey games after neighbors complained about open drug use, trespassing, violence and littering. 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 must contend with temperatures well below freezing for days at a time and relentless winds blowing off Cook Inlet. At the end of June, Anchorage was estimated to have slightly more than 3,150 homeless people, according to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. Last week, there were only 614 beds in shelters across the city, 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 Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson and near soup kitchens and shelters downtown.
Assembly members are slated to consider a winter-stop option in August that doesn’t meet the need: a large, heated, tent-like structure for 150 people.
Summer brings its own challenges: last year, hungry bears roamed a city-owned campground where homeless people were being 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 instead of spending about $100 a day 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 the streets of Anchorage.”
It is not clear whether 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 work with social workers and law enforcement to discover people’s individual causes of homelessness and connect them with resources.
Buying unread a ticket to another city is a political game that has been around for years. A number of US cities struggling with homelessness, including San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have also offered bus or plane tickets to homeless residents.
“People are not farmers, they are people,” Mala said.
The mayor’s proposal, while focused on warmer cities, would also fund tickets to other places in Alaska 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 would not allow her husband to live with her, so they pitched a tent in a sprawling camp to stay together.
After finding the body of a dead teenager who overdosed on a portable toilet, Clark longs to return to the Chukchi Sea coastal town of Point Hope, where her three grandchildren live.
“I have a family that loves me,” she said, adding that she would use the ticket and seek treatment closer to home.
Danny Parish also leaves Alaska, but for a different reason: He’s tired.
Parish is selling his home of 29 years because it’s right across the street from Sullivan Arena. Bad actions 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 “hell”, he said.
Parish is confident the arena will be used again this winter as there is no other plan.
He also hopes to move to the contiguous United States — Oregon, for one — but not before asking Anchorage leaders for his own plane ticket.
“If they’re going to give them to everybody else,” Parish said, “they’ve got to give me one.”