Linda Killbear sat on a wall near the end of North Bliss Street Wednesday and wondered where she’d sleep that night.
Killbear, 61, is one of the many who set up makeshift homes in parks and greenbelts along Mountain View’s northern edge. At worst, she said, the camps are dirty and dangerous. At best, they afford a rare night’s sleep. But she saw few other options.
On the last day in April, she rested in the afternoon sun with a friend and smiled when she spoke about her children, her grandchildren and her own childhood in Nome.
“It was so different,” she said; worlds away from North Bliss Street and the neighborhood camps.
Her voice rose excitedly when she spoke about killing two caribou during a long-ago hunting trip, and she brushed away a quick tear when she spoke about the blue-eyed son she’d buried up in Fairbanks.
She wore black track pants, boots and a zip-up hoodie. The afternoon breeze blew strands of long, brown hair across her face as she spoke, and faint purple bruises shadowed her right eye.
Killbear said she’s been familiar with homelessness for a long time: She said she once worked at the 12-hour sleep-off center in the Golden Heart City, and spoke about the time she saved a man’s life when he passed out in the cold outside the front door.
“If I didn’t go out, Walter Tommy – he would’ve sat down like this and froze,” said Killbear, crossing her arms across her chest and sitting rigid on the cement planter box.
On one hand she wore a set of rings that she twisted around her fingers as she spoke. Killbear said they were a gift from an old friend, someone she’d encouraged to get sober years ago.
“I want to help people,” she said, her voice thick with emotion.
She spoke about how she wanted to study counseling at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, how an ex broke her nose and her dream took a back seat. Her voice broke when she spoke about her young grandchildren, and the little boy with blue eyes just like the son she used to have. She blinked back tears when she spoke about another bout of violence so unexpected it drove her from her home with nothing but the clothes on her back.
That was in February.
Anchorage police had put out a brief plea for public help finding Killbear, citing concern for her health and well-being. The search was canceled when Killbear said an emergency room worker recognized her face and called police. But she said she couldn’t go back home.
“It’s hard – when you’re in an abusive, verbal abusive, everything abusive – it’s not a good environment,” she said, her voice cracking. “I just want to be safe.”
So she went to the Brother Francis Shelter.
“It’s a good place to stay if you’re a man,” Killbear said.
After sleeping at the shelter for the maximum 30 days, she said, she walked east into Mountain View and didn’t go back.
At Brother Francis Shelter, staff said the number of residents tends to decrease in the summer. It’s partly due to a spike in seasonal employment, staff said, but also because of an increase in outdoor camping during the warmer months.
Ellen Krsnak, Catholic Social Services’ communications director, said the shelter discourages camping. It’s unsafe and illegal, she said, and the shelter tries to help clients work towards other housing options.
Still, Mountain View is dotted with camps.
A handful of people and a chow dog named Ginger live in a gathering of tents near the entrance to Davis Park. A large blue tent is strung into a makeshift shelter between the trees, and overflowing trash bags surround a cluster of camp chairs. Toilet paper, empty beer cans and other refuse clutter the underbrush.
At another campsite farther into the park, sleeping bags lay surrounded by plastic storage tubs and more garbage.
Anchorage ordinance prohibits camps on public land, and sets several time frames and procedures for dispersing them. Local homeowners and community patrol members said they’ve called Anchorage police about the Davis Park campsites multiple times. Police said they’ve received 13 calls regarding illegal camping at the park between January 2013 and April 22 of this year. Yet the tents still remain visible through the trees from the street outside the park.
Killbear said she avoids the camps in the park — they’re too dangerous. Sometimes, she said she spends the night with relatives in their tiny Mountain View home. Most of the time she camps with people she’s met along the way, setting up shelter in the woods to the north. She sees it as one of her only options.
It was becoming increasingly difficult, Killbear said. She said she’s started drinking again. She can’t stop thinking about the grandchildren she hasn’t seen in months. And her memory is beginning to fade.
“It’s not good, it’s not good,” Killbear said, suddenly crying. “But you’ve got to go on and be strong.”
In December 2013, court records show the state health department petitioned for temporary guardianship. Supporting documents included medical clinic notes and the results of a memory test. In March, court records show, a judge granted the order.
Wednesday, Killbear said she would probably sleep outside that night. She had no idea what the next day would bring. She couldn’t remember where she spent the night before.
“I said, ‘Lord, you show me, you guide my feet, you show me where to go,” Killbear said. “Somehow, something good always comes around.”