It was a sunny late May afternoon at Mountain View Lions Park: The basketball court was busy with a rowdy game of three-on-three and the playground was packed with shouting kids.
A hundred feet away, past the little league field, just beyond the gate to neighboring Davis Park, a worn green tent sat pitched at the edge of the woods. Smoke from a smoldering campfire drifted through the trees. A rope clothesline hung between two branches, and a water-stained piece of paper with a carefully stenciled Dallas Cowboys logo was taped to a nearby birch. Someone took care to make it feel like home.
Since May 1, the Anchorage Police Department has received more than a half dozen complaints about camps at the Mountain View park. Camping on public land is prohibited by municipal ordinance, and APD’s Community Action Policing (CAP) team is tasked with responding to reports and disbanding camps in green spaces across Anchorage.
The issue is citywide—the department fields calls about camps from Muldoon to Jewel Lake. And it’s a cycle.
Year after year, too many Alaskans sleep in battered, dirty shelters in neighborhood parks and open spaces. Season after season, little changes.
People call police to lodge a complaint. Eventually, the CAP team visits the campsite. If someone is living there, police offer social service connections and post a 15-day abatement notice prior to taking action, according to APD. The Anchorage Responsible Beverage Retailers Association pitches in to help clear trash from the area. Tents disappear; for a time. Then they’re resurrected in other overgrown corners and wooded easements and the cycle continues.
Last spring, Davis Park was dotted with campsites. A cluster of tents and pile of used toilet paper sat within yards of the trail. Damp sleeping bags and crushed cans of Steel Reserve and Foster’s were scattered across the forest floor.
The camps garnered plenty of complaints. A concerned dog-walker flagged down neighborhood patrolmen in the parking lot of the Mountain View Lions Club, and longtime residents raised their voices at community council meeting after community council meeting.
Lt. Garry Gilliam, former CAP team leader, saw no easy fix. Anchorage is currently home to several dozen “hardcore” homeless, he said; people who prefer drinking, drugs and the outdoors to a shelter stay and the help of a social service worker. When officers find them, they move on to the next site.
At the same time, police can only trespass campers from individual parks, and there are more than 220 parks in the municipality.
It’s a revolving door, the lieutenant said.
Randall Lorraine went through that door for decades. He lived in Davis Park with his Chow dog, Ginger; hung out at neighborhood bus stops, drank cheap whiskey before noon and knew everyone else who slept in the woods in Mountain View. Local shelters don’t allow pets or booze, so Lorraine stayed away. Plus, he said, he felt restless indoors.
So he stayed outside.
Then, last year, the neighbors’ complaints added up and the CAP team took action. Lorraine was evicted and for a while, the camps cleared out of Davis Park. But they didn’t disappear.
Instead, they sprung up outside Tyson Elementary School alongside the Ship Creek Trail and in the woods alongside Commercial Drive. After a few months, they reappeared in Davis Park. A year later, it was as if nothing had changed.
In May, the police department logged about 100 camp calls citywide. They responded to approximately 23.
People reported campsites at Connor’s Bog; off Minnesota Drive; in midtown greenbelts. Across the street from the Anchorage Jail, tents lean up against a chain link fence around an industrial lot. Makeshift shelters line the hillside above the Brother Francis Shelter, and sit among outcroppings of trees in Turnagain and Fairview. Sleeping there isn’t safe.
People who live in Anchorage’s camps talk about frequent assaults. There can be too much alcohol. There are many risks. In February, a woman was found dead in a camp off Folker Street. In early May, a man was stabbed at a Chester Creek homeless camp, police said.
And every spring the tents pop up like dandelions on the Davis Park rugby pitch.
Ofc. Araceli Jones, with APD’s CAP team, said police are seeing about the same number of camps this year as they did in 2014. This year, though, the CAP team is faced with an additional challenge. Manpower.
Staffing problems mean officers are shouldering more responsibilities, Jones said. There’s less time to track down campsites. When they do find them, they often reappear somewhere else. But—in between all the other work—the CAP team keeps at it, Jones said.
Police paid a visit to Mountain View Lions Park on May 27. On June 2, they went looking for camps in Davis Park. A week later, the green tent just beyond the tree line was broken down and abandoned. The clothesline hung empty.
The people who called the camp home had moved on, and all that remained was a soggy gray hoodie at the base of a tree, a crumpled tent and somebody named Myrna Wilson’s prescription arthritis medication, spilling out of an open orange pill bottle on the ground nearby.
Then another tent popped up on the other side of the neighborhood and the cycle continued.