BERKOWITZ MAY SET UP VAGRANT SERVICE HUB AT THIRD, INGRA
Squatter camps around Anchorage will get new signage today: “No Camping.”
In a unanimous vote of 11-0, the Anchorage Assembly unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday ordering Mayor Ethan Berkowitz administration to immediately begin clearing out vagrant sites around Anchorage, particularly in two areas where serious squalor has set in at Third Avenue and Ingra Street and along Chester Creek between C Street and Ingra.
It’s something that Berkowitz has been reluctant to do. Although he ran on a “safe Anchorage” platform, he also maintains a core belief that Anchorage should be “a welcoming community,” as “Alaska’s largest village.” For years, he has had a homeless coordinator, but the expanding vagrant problem has become his signature achievement.
Assemblymember Chris Constant has had enough. He warned that unless action was taken to abate homelessness in and near his district, he would object to every single item on the Assembly agenda for as long as it would take to get action for something that he sees as a dire situation.
Constant said that the inaction on the part of the Berkowitz Administration is intolerable and that Berkowitz has been dragging his heels on the vagrant encampments for months.
“This inaction is just intolerable. I agree that we shouldn’t be mixing these people but I can almost hear the violins playing in the room,” he said, speaking from his home. “The fact is, our current actions for months have been to tolerate rampant criminality, defecation in the streets, trash piles everywhere, sick people piled on top of each other, marching from corner to corner to corner to corner across the downtown. They are not isolated or limited to a location.” Constant said.
The first step demanded by the Assembly is for the city to post the signs at the squatter encampments, and give the people staying in the tents and under tarps 10 days to clear out their possessions. The city will spend up to $180,000 cleaning up the camps, which will require hiring contractors.
Assemblymember Forrest Dunbar said in his talks with the Berkowitz Administration he was told the the camps haven’t been abated because the administration believed to disperse the vagrants might increase the spread of COVID-19, and the Centers for Disease Control recommends that encampments such as these remain undisturbed.
Rob Cupples, who owns property nearby at Third Avenue and Hyder Street, says that is a mistaken belief about the camps. He observes drug deals going on all day long, as people come and go from the sprawling squatter headquarters at Third and Ingra.
Cupples told Must Read Alaska, that the site has significant interaction with the general public because of the underground drug commerce taking place. The Administration’s rationale that the camps should not be abated because it is a contained community is unsupported by reality, Cupples said.
“Both the foot and vehicular traffic between the homed and unhomed to and from this location is non-stop. Vehicles come from outside the neighborhood with individuals cycling in and out of the camp constantly. Camp occupants are moving all throughout the downtown and midtown corridors, interacting with the general public and returning to the camp. On any given day 10 or more different vehicles, often with multiple occupants, drive to the location and enter the camps to purchase drugs that are being moved through the encampment by specific individuals,” Cupples said.
Cupples said he observed from his property as a woman from out of town who came by with a bag of hamburgers, and while she left her van running nearby, went into the encampment at Third and Ingra to hand out the hamburgers, only to return to find a man from the encampment had hopped in her van and taken off with it.
Cupples watched the whole incident unfold but wasn’t able to intervene because of the speed of the theft. The vehicle was found later, but the woman’s purse, phone and bike were stolen.
Chris Schutte, the municipality’s director of economic and community development, explained to the Assembly that by abating the camps, the people living there will be more likely to come into contact with people who have COVID-19.
Because they typically are living an unhealthy lifestyle and often have underlying health conditions, COVID-19 could be more deadly to them, he said, “if it does make its way into that population.”
Schutte said the Berkowitz Administration looked to “peer communities” to see what they are doing with their vagrant camps, and that they are all following the CDC guidelines to not abate the camps.
“And there’s a reason for that. For one, it’s a rule, a guidance from the federal government, most of us are operating under an emergency setting, and we will be relying on FEMA dollars to offset the cost that we are incurring. And I am one that believes if you are going to ask for money from the federal government you should probably not violate some of the rules and guidance of the federal government,” Shutte told the Assembly.
Schutte said that the peer cities he has looked at are providing masks, hand washing stations, and portable toilets for their vagrant camps, rather than clearing the camps. He said the Berkowitz Administration has considered doing that, but the Chester Creek encampment now poses a fire risk as Anchorage moves into wildfire season, and it has to be cleared.
As for the Third and Ingra encampment, Schutte said the Administration is developing an idea around satellite hubs to provide outreach services to the people living on the streets, and that the city may create an outreach hub at Third and Ingra with hand washing stations, masks, and toilets.
“One of the first sites that would be an excellent candidate for that is the Third and Ingra site, Schutte said.
“We have a population of individuals there that we don’t touch regularly, that we don’t communicate with regularly, and so it would provide an opportunity for the outreach hub and services and service providers who will use that to interface with them,” Schutte said.
Property owner Cupples, who is part of a group called “Third Avenue Radicals,” has another idea. He encouraged the Assembly to request an audit comparing the cost of fencing around the Third Avenue area and the cost of abatement.
“It is and has been the position of the community the administration has a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the fence, despite the costs. We first took this position back in December when we learned of their opposition to maintaining it and have repeatedly warned the Administration that the situation we are experiencing today would be the end result of their position, but they refused to take our concerns seriously or reconsider their position,” Cupples said.