Community members seek solutions to alcohol and housing concerns

In a push to improve public safety in Mountain View, people seem to agree on one thing: Solutions don’t come easily.

Depending on whom you ask, public inebriation and persistent camping in Davis Park are tied to a number of much deeper issues. Some residents blame lax law enforcement. Police point to legal hurdles. According to neighborhood lawmakers, problems stem from citywide issues like housing availability, substance abuse and police staffing.

“It’s all related, and it all needs to be addressed,” said Kelly McDonald, a 12-year Mountain View resident.

McDonald is one of many people working to tackle what he sees as a multifaceted issue. Together with state Rep. Garen Tarr, McDonald is putting together a community council resolution related to the number of housing facilities in Mountain View. In his view, residential treatment programs and bed space for recovering substance abusers — built in close quarters in a small neighborhood — contribute to ongoing public safety problems.

By his count, there are more than a dozen such facilities within Mountain View’s 2.2 miles. There are also two liquor stores built alongside popular bus routes just blocks away. McDonald sees it as a volatile combination. He said dispersing services more evenly throughout the municipality would be an improvement for everyone involved.

“Yeah, we need to do something, but we don’t need to do it all in Mountain View,” McDonald said.

When the subject came up at the Mountain View Community Council’s June meeting, Assemblyman Patrick Flynn agreed.

He said he supported plans to spread housing facilities more widely throughout Anchorage. But Flynn also reminded meeting attendees of the public uproar that followed a proposal to build a transitional housing campus on a tract of land near the entrance to Kincaid Park. The plan fell through. The assemblyman said it points to a larger problem.

“Part of it is, we just don’t have enough housing for people,” Flynn said.

If you ask Tarr, there aren’t enough police, either.

At the June meeting, the state representative spoke about the need to boost Anchorage Police Department resources to tamp out illegal camping in neighborhood parks. The tent sites brought violence, trash and dangerous conditions to Davis Park. They became a point of concern for many people in the neighborhood, and a point of tension for others. Some, like longtime resident Dan Maher, blame the camps on APD inaction. If you ask Maher, he says repeated calls to police have brought no changes.

But Lt. Garry Gilliam, head of the department’s Community Action Policing Team, said the camping problem stems from access to alcohol, a housing crunch and local law (or lack thereof). Following a 2010 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, APD must give campers 15 days notice before removing campsites on public property. Gilliam said campers can only be trespassed from individual parks, and groups often leave one site and set up camp in another. The latest Davis Park camp eviction, following the latest 15-day notice, is set to take place this week.

“It’s a revolving door,” Gilliam said.

Since the department began a coordinated effort to clear homeless camps from public land several years ago, the lieutenant said it’s seen a steady drop in the number of camps. The number of campers has decreased from around 400 to about several dozen, and he said police have also seen other changes.

“The people that are in the illegal camps now — we call them our hardcore — they refuse social services,” Gilliam said. “They want to go out and do the drugs, alcohol, and they don’t care about anything else.”

The lieutenant said it makes it difficult to completely eradicate the problem.

The majority of the people living in camps over the past few years have been connected to social services and shelter, according to Gilliam. Some people with severe mental illnesses still fall through the cracks. He said most of the campers, though, are chronic substance abusers who refuse help and occasionally have other housing options elsewhere.

“They want us to stay out of their lives, but the problem is they’re creating a very serious public safety issue for the rest of us,” Gilliam said.

There are high rates of crime — particularly sexual assault — associated with illegal camps, and Gilliam said the public inebriation that often goes hand-in-hand has ripple effects. The lieutenant said he’s heard of other medical emergencies subjected to longer waits because the closest available paramedic was responding to a report of an over-intoxicated man down somewhere else in town.

A possible solution? Gilliam suggested an ordinance mandating a 30-day detox treatment for anyone picked up by the Anchorage Safety Patrol a certain number of times. The lieutenant said he thought it might cut down on the number of campers who traveled to Anchorage to drink with friends.

“I can tell you that these individuals, you pick them up in the spring and they spend their entire summer in detox, they won’t want to come back,” Gilliam said.

He said a law that helped cut back on chronic public inebriation and the camps often associated with it could free up resources to help others among Anchorage’s homeless population.

“There are some people out there who are down on their luck,” Gilliam said. “There is a very small population that my heart really goes out to.”

He said those suffering from severe mental illnesses are some of the most vulnerable people in the community. Better care for them would require a better way of handling chronic public inebriation and illegal camping. And Gilliam said those things tie back to housing availability and access to alcohol.

“There is no easy fix to it,” he said.

It may not be easy, but McDonald’s working on one. So are other members of the neighborhood and northeast Anchorage lawmakers and community leaders. According to them, tackling Mountain View’s public safety concerns — and the bigger issues behind them — requires a multipronged approach supported by the entire Anchorage community.

“It’s something that needs to be dealt with around the board,” McDonald said.

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