Juneau is home to about 32,000 people, 238 of whom are homeless, according to a recent “point in time” survey.
With the homeless population being less than one percent of Juneau’s whole, this generous community has 45 agencies devoted to providing them some type of service.
As the years roll by, the population of homeless people fluctuates, but never has it been so aggressive in the capital city, locals say. Juneauites have taken a soft-hearted, live-and-let-live stance, which unintentionally created a homeless and criminal magnet out of the small downtown district, where the Glory Hole homeless shelter serves meals and offers showers, a few beds and welcomes the homeless with a warm place to hang out during the day.
As the Glory Hole grew its services, downtown deteriorated with drug addicts and chronic inebriates camping in the doorways of businesses.
Anecdotes from business owners describe the homeless population as a changed one. “There are criminals that have infiltrated the homeless community,” one businessman described. “They can get their free meals, a shower, everything from the Glory Hole. And they’re breaking into places, shaking people down for money, especially unaccompanied women.”
The philosophy of the Glory Hole manager, Mariya Lovishchuk, has been that she wants the homeless to be visible. She doesn’t want them to be hidden away and forgotten.
She’s gotten her way. Women who go downtown are now arming themselves. Business owners are installing fencing in their entries, giving the downtown area the look of a business district under siege.
People who venture into the heart of the downtown district report having their cars accosted by aggressive panhandlers, or stepping in human excrement on the way to their offices.
Mayor Koelsch and the Juneau Assembly took an important step toward addressing the private property problem last week by passing Ordinance 2016–44, which bans unauthorized camping on private property in a defined downtown zone. It was put forward at the urging of downtown business owners.
Speaking in support of the ordinance, Eric Forst, who manages the Red Dog Saloon, said that Juneau is seeing a “a younger, meaner, more aggressive element that does not want to be helped — and that’s what this is targeted at.” He points out that “this is a small group — not all of the homeless — but there is a segment that is new, and it’s mean.”
Forst said that the new ordinance is simply an amendment to an existing ordinance that clearly defines the downtown zone.
KOELSCH RAN ON SAFETY
Mayor Ken Koelsch came into office one year ago with a strong public safety focus, and a commitment to downtown business owners. He’s not happy with the dangerously deteriorating conditions in the merchant area of downtown. He worries about how tourism could suffer if Juneau doesn’t clean up its ways.
Initially, he faced big challenges. In spite of a strong voter mandate — nearly 60 percent of the vote — Koelsch faced an Assembly that had its own liberal spin on issues, and a city bureaucracy that leans decidedly left on most issues, including the homeless problem.
But the Assembly is slightly more moderate than it was at this time last year. So Mayor Koelsch seized the opportunity to champion the new ordinance.
After hours of tearful testimony, it passed 5-4 with support from Koelsch, Jerry Nankervis, Debbie White, Mary Becker and Beth Weldon. Opposed were Norton Gregory, Jesse Kiehl, Loren Jones, and Maria Gladziszewski.
“This isn’t about the people who sleep on the sidewalk. This isn’t about people in Marine Park. This is about people who have invested in our downtown community, who employ our neighbors,” said Assembly member White.
The ordinance is about being able to keep trespassers off of private property.
But the left side of the Assembly did not let it pass without a fight and, of course, some choice theatrics. Liberal Assembly member Kiehl was in tears as he spoke against the ordinance: “Are people better off now in doorways? You bet they are because those abandoned mine buildings above Gastineau Avenue are scary places and there are no lights and [the police] doesn’t drive by and check.”
In other words, the problem is much more serious than Juneauites imagine. Even by Kiehl’s description, if you’re not within shouting distance of a police officer in Juneau, you’re not safe.
Kiehl, a legislative aide to Sen. Dennis Egan by day, minored in drama at Whitman College. His tearful testimony was a masterful performance.
But notably, he didn’t offer his own Harris Street home, with its sturdy chain link fence all around it, as a sanctuary for homeless people.
This is not over. The ACLU is threatening to sue the City and Borough of Juneau over the ordinance. It calls the no-trespassing ordinance an “anti-homelessness ordinance.”
“Homelessness is tragic, especially in Alaska,” said the ACLU’s Alaska Executive Director Joshua A. Decker in a statement. “But with over 200 homeless people in Juneau, Ordinance 2016–44 does nothing to fix the problem. Instead of trying to outlaw sleeping downtown when people have nowhere else to go, Juneau should refocus its efforts to ensure that everyone has a safe place to sleep at night.”
Decker may not be aware that Juneau is in the middle of the nation’s largest national forest, with 17 million acres of open land. And he seems willfully ignorant that this is a law that pertains to private property rights, not public space.
HOMELESS IN SEATTLE, PORTLAND, EUGENE…
Like Juneau, efforts to embrace the homeless have had similarly bad results in other cities across the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle faces a massive problem. In 2015 its mayor declared homelessness an emergency on the heels of a much-publicized 10-year-plan to end homelessness. The plan failed miserably; homelessness spiraled.
The current mayor, in his state-of-the-city address yesterday, asked for $55 million in new property taxes to address the homeless problem, as the city now has more homeless than any other city its size. Only New York City, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas have bigger homeless populations than the greater Seattle area.
Portland began a sanctuary policy for homeless people, a decision that led to people putting up tents and living anywhere they chose to on public property, in doorways, and on sidewalks. The filth, destruction of property, and human waste has accumulated from freeway interchanges to downtown doorways.
Six months into the experiment, Mayor Charlie Hales not only had to end it, he too had to declare an emergency.
Eugene, Oregon’s downtown is now in crisis mode. A planning consultant hired by the city says the homeless problem there is the worst she’s ever seen. It’s unsafe to be downtown at any time. She probably hasn’t been to Juneau yet.
Juneau’s downtown business community is growing weary of bearing the brunt of the homeless culture. Now, it also is also feeling heat from some Juneau anti-private-property critics, who have threatened to stop spending their money in downtown businesses in retaliation for what they feel is harsh treatment of a vulnerable population.
These businesses owners appreciate that Mayor Koelsch and his supporters on the Assembly have taken a very important step in defending the concept of private property, while also reintroducing a refreshing element of sanity into the discussion.