Homeless in Anchorage battle severe cold and bear invasions. A suggestion to offer one-way plane tickets exposes a broader crisis

by Michael Nguyen
Anchorage homelessness crisis

After an abrupt increase in their monthly rent to $800, Shawn Steik and his wife were ejected from their long-term motel room into the bitter streets of Anchorage. They’ve since set up a tent by a railway depot. With the Alaska winter drawing near, their desperation and fear are mounting.

The recent proposal by Anchorage’s Mayor Dave Bronson to provide homeless residents with one-way air tickets out of Alaska’s most populated city brought a spark of optimism for Steik. He envisages relocating to Seattle, a comparatively warmer city.

“I’ve heard it’s likely warmer there,” stated Steik, of Aleut descent.

However, the mayor’s unfunded plan has been instantly criticized as a superficial solution to the significant, yet unaddressed, crisis engulfing Anchorage. The rapidly increasing homeless population is grappling with survival in an environment characterized by harsh winters and bear intrusions at summer encampments.

The last winter saw a record eight people succumb to cold exposure while living on the streets, and this year threatens to be even harsher, following the closure of a city arena that accommodated 500 people during the winter months. Disagreements between the city’s liberal assembly and its conservative mayor over ways to tackle the crisis, compounded by insufficient state funding, have hampered any progress towards a solution.

With winter closing in on Alaska, the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska commented, “It’s beyond time for state and local leaders to tackle the root causes of homelessness — airplane tickets are merely a distraction, not an answer,” in a statement issued to The Big Big News.

Around 43% of the over 3,000 unhoused inhabitants in Anchorage are Alaska Natives, and the mayor’s proposal also sparked fierce criticism from those who found it culturally insensitive.

Christopher Constant, chair of the Anchorage Assembly, argued, “The truth is, there’s no place to relocate these individuals as this is their land. Any policy decision should respect this simple fact. This is Dena’ina land, this is Native land.” He insisted that policies which could displace people from their homeland, regardless of its condition, shouldn’t be supported.

Mayor Bronson’s airfare proposal is the latest development in a tumultuous period for Anchorage, which, like many western U.S. cities, is struggling with a surging homeless population.

In May, after complaints about public drug use, trespassing, violence, and litter, the city closed a 500-bed homeless shelter in the city’s arena, which was slated to be reused for concerts and hockey games. A plan to establish a large shelter and navigation center was thwarted when Mayor Bronson approved a contract without the Anchorage Assembly’s consent.

This situation leaves a massive gap in the city’s capacity to shelter its thousands of homeless residents, who must endure freezing temperatures for prolonged periods and relentless winds from the Cook Inlet. By June end, Anchorage reportedly had just over 3,150 homeless people, according to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. Last week, citywide shelters had only 614 beds, all of which were occupied.

New tent cities emerged throughout Anchorage this summer: on a slope facing the city’s historic railroad depot, near the Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, and close to downtown soup kitchens and shelters.

Assembly members are scheduled to consider a temporary solution for the winter in August, but it falls short of the need: a large, heated, tent-like structure for 150 individuals.

Summer presents its own problems: last year, hungry bears wandered a city-owned campground where homeless individuals were relocated following the arena’s closure. Four bears were killed by wildlife officials after they raided tents.

Bronson expressed his preference to spend a few hundred dollars per person for an air ticket instead of spending roughly $100 daily on shelter and food. He stated his responsibility was to “ensure they don’t perish on Anchorage streets,” without any concern about their preferred destination.

His proposal’s fate remains uncertain due to a lack of a concrete plan or funding source.

Dr. Ted Mala, the first Alaska Native to serve as the state’s health commissioner, believes that Anchorage should collaborate with social workers and law enforcement to understand the individual reasons behind homelessness and connect them with resources.

Mala criticizes the practice of relocating the homeless to another city as a long-standing political maneuver. Similar tactics have been adopted by other U.S. cities grappling with homelessness, including San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.

“People are not pawns, they’re human beings,” Mala emphasized.

The mayor’s proposal, although focused on warmer cities, would also fund tickets to other Alaska locations if desired.

After her medical team advised her to move from Point Hope to Anchorage for cancer treatment due to the warmer climate, Clarita Clark became homeless. The medical facility would not let her husband stay with her, forcing them to set up a tent in a sprawling camp.

Haunted by the discovery of a young overdose victim in a portable toilet, Clark longs to return to the coastal village of Point Hope near the Chukchi Sea, where her three grandchildren reside.

She expressed, “I have a family that loves me,” adding that she would use the ticket to seek treatment closer to her family.

Danny Parish is leaving Alaska out of frustration. After enduring a series of unfortunate events, including harassment, littering, and harm to his dog from some homeless individuals residing across from his home of 29 years, near Sullivan Arena, Parish has decided to sell his home.

Parish believes that the arena will be reopened this winter given the absence of an alternative plan. His own relocation plan involves moving to Oregon, but not before requesting his own plane ticket out of Anchorage.

“If they’re going to offer them to everyone else,” Parish argued, “then they need to give me one.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Anchorage homelessness crisis

What is the homelessness situation in Anchorage?

Anchorage is facing a significant homelessness crisis. There are over 3,000 unsheltered residents in the city, and the closing of a 500-bed homeless shelter in May has exacerbated the problem. New tent cities have emerged across the city, and existing shelters are running at full capacity.

What is Mayor Dave Bronson’s proposal to address homelessness?

Mayor Dave Bronson has proposed offering one-way plane tickets out of Anchorage to homeless residents. He believes it would be more cost-effective than providing daily shelter and food. However, this proposal has been criticized as a superficial solution that fails to address the root causes of homelessness.

What are the dangers homeless people face in Anchorage?

Homeless people in Anchorage face harsh winter temperatures, with a record eight people dying from cold exposure last winter. Additionally, bear invasions into homeless encampments during the summer pose another threat to the safety of the homeless population.

Who criticized Mayor Dave Bronson’s proposal and why?

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and the Anchorage Assembly, among others, have criticized Mayor Bronson’s proposal. They argue that it is a distraction from addressing the underlying causes of homelessness and could potentially displace people from their native land.

What measures are being considered to tackle the approaching winter?

The Anchorage Assembly is considering a winter stop-gap option: a large, heated, tent-like structure that can accommodate 150 people. However, this measure falls far short of the need, given the size of the homeless population.

More about Anchorage homelessness crisis

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FreedomLover July 31, 2023 - 4:35 am

if it’s a choice btwn $100/day for food and shelter or a few hundred for a plane ticket, maybe the mayor has a point… But we’ve gotta make sure people have a safe place to land, right?

JohnAK49 July 31, 2023 - 6:18 am

Seriously, sending the homeless away? Thats the big plan?? We gotta come up with some real solutions here, folks.

ConcernedCitizen July 31, 2023 - 8:49 am

these folks need homes not plane tickets! We need better solutions…

AlaskanNative July 31, 2023 - 12:07 pm

This isn’t right! This is their land. That mayor’s plan just sweeps the problem under the rug. It doesn’t solve anything…

MotherNatureLover July 31, 2023 - 2:33 pm

It’s tragic what’s happening to these people… Imagine facing harsh winters and bear attacks, too. Something’s gotta change!


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