Portland, Ore. launched a six-month experiment in February: Between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., street dwellers can erect tents, structures, roll out their sleeping bags and spend the night right on the cold sidewalks and various rights of way. Other cities are watching with interest to see how the experiment goes.
This week, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz went the opposite direction on homeless policy: The nonfunctional fountain in Town Square, constructed for $150,000 many years ago, is getting bulldozed because it provides shelter for the homeless to get out of the wind. No more naps in the sun for the mildly stoned and disturbingly inebriated downtown.
Town Square Park was, up until about five years ago, a sweet urban pocket park that felt relatively safe. But change is in the wind. Even though there are plenty of jobs to be found in Anchorage, the homeless population grows yearly, fueled by mental illness, substance addiction, and the breakdown of the family. Town Square is not for the rest of us any longer. It belongs to its own community — the homeless and the restless.
Last year, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland declared states of emergency due to their burgeoning homeless population. Leaders likened homelessness to a natural disaster and having a disaster declaration in hand gave them more money and more flexibility to deal with the growing human tragedy.
Is there anything wrong with allowing Town Square Park to be a refuge for those who are lost or who are finding their way? How will we know when an afternoon lounging in the park becomes a criminal act of loitering? It’s a big question for public safety, but it’s a deeper question for civil liberty watchdogs.