Inside an Anchorage homeless camp about to be dismantled

·10 min read

Jun. 24—On a gentle June morning, Brian Vaughan strode through the forested paths of his adopted home, a sprawling encampment on the edge of Anchorage's Mountain View neighborhood.

Vaughan, 52, has lived in these woods or nearby for six years.

Some people call him the mayor of this homeless camp. Others think of him as something more like a grandfather.

On this day, Vaughan, a rapid-fire talker who seems perpetually in motion, was trying to come up with a plan. Police have posted warnings that the camp will soon be dismantled and cleared. That meant that on Friday, June 24, city workers would arrive to haul away the dozens of tents and shelters where Vaughan and a fluctuating population of 25 to 50 others live in Davis Park, near a rugby field, a disc golf course and a playground. For most, that meant likely losing all the belongings they couldn't carry out.

Vaughan was trying to think a few steps ahead: Should the group move back across the road to a former camp site at the snow dump? Set up tents on the sidewalks to make a point? In the camp, the mood drifted between defiance and resignation.

"I'm hoping something happens where we don't have to but — we'll probably end up having to break down camp and move," he said.

It wasn't clear where people were supposed to go.

"They're saying there's no available housing," Vaughan said. "The Sullivan Arena is shutting down. The other shelters are at full capacity."

The encampment at Davis Park is a window into the lives of people living unsheltered at this moment in Anchorage. It's also an illustration of the challenges the city faces in attempting to clear camps, especially at a time when alternatives are full or limited. And it may be a view into the future. Advocates say when the Sullivan Arena shelter closes for good on June 30, more people will end up on the street.

Vaughan is expecting them.

"There's going to be a wave," Vaughan said. "First people are going to go out to the Campbell Creek area, the people who utilize the shelter down there. They'll be camping. And then some of 'em will probably make their way out here."

At a crossroads

This summer, Anchorage is at a decisive moment when it comes to the future of homelessness in the city: The emergency shelter at Sullivan Arena that had been operating since the beginning of the pandemic will close at the end of this month. At some points in the pandemic, more than 500 people had been housed there.

A new planned "navigation center" shelter near the intersection of Tudor and Elmore roads isn't expected to be ready until late fall, according to the city, leaving the city without a large, low-barrier shelter for months. Existing shelters and hotel room sites are full with waiting lists. More people will be pushed into living in camps, the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness has warned.

Over the last 18 months, an unprecedented partnership between the city, nonprofits and corporations has produced millions of dollars of funding to establish new supportive housing and shelters, representing a major shift in Anchorage's approach to homelessness. But after Mayor Dave Bronson announced Sullivan Arena would close, relations between the nonprofit community, the Anchorage Assembly and the Bronson administration deteriorated, with each accusing the other of dishonesty. Facilitators working on the plan quit, citing a breakdown in "transparency, candor and 'we are all in this together' attitude" in the process.

In its latest Sullivan Arena shutdown report, the city says it is remains "confident the community need will be met" and that exhaustive efforts are being made to house remaining guests.

'Cat and mouse game'

Meanwhile, as the days tick down to the closure of Sullivan Arena, attention has centered on whether the city should continue to dismantle what it considers illegal encampments — like the one in Davis Park. A federal court decision holds that camps can't be cleared when there are no alternative shelter sites available.

The city says it will clear homeless camps because they are illegal and pose health and safety hazards, and plans to continue to do so in coming months.

Abatements work like this:

—In a 10-day abatement, the most common kind, a sign is posted and the campers have 10 days to move. Property left behind is "considered trash and disposed of by parks and recreation," according to the city.

—When the city determines a camp poses an imminent safety threat — due to wildfire hazards, bear activity, proximity to schools or playgrounds or criminal activity, among other criteria — a 72-hour notice is posted and campers have three days to move. In that case, property is supposed to be stored by the parks and recreation department for pickup, though campers say it's difficult and confusing to get belongings back.

City data as of Thursday shows 48 camp abatements currently in progress.

Residents of the camp call abatements cruel and pointless, saying they rebuild campsites nearby but lose all their belongings in the process.

Arthur Smith had been living at the park for four years.

For a short while, he was staying at the Aviator Hotel with his girlfriend, who was pregnant. He said they left for a few days and came back to find they'd been evicted, again losing belongings. "I went to a place I thought I was safe. That my stuff was safe." It wasn't, he said. Now, he's back in the camp, facing another abatement.

He said he'd lost irreplaceable items in previous camp clearings: photos from family, letters from his father and his birth certificate, Social Security card and identification.

"It's losing things that are precious. Losing dignity," he said.

A handful of Davis Park residents have even banded together to fight the city's abatements in court, appealing an administrative court decision to allow the abatement to go forward. Gary Smith, a former resident who is working on the appeal, knows the case number by heart:

"It's 3AN-22-05639CI," he said, sitting in a camping chair. He says the camp clearing process doesn't give homeless residents a proper chance to contest it in court until long after the camp has been cleared. The case remains open.

"It's just a cat and mouse game," Vaughan said.

At home in the woods

The camp is structured around improvised shelters, with places designated for cooking, working, fixing and building things and trails between smaller satellite dwellings, little neighborhoods amid the forest understory. There are piles of bikes and bicycle parts.

Some encampments are encircled by fences made of fallen limbs and small trees, nailed and lashed together. Wild lupine blooms on the ground amid burn scars. Near one tent, two flower pots of pink fuchsia blossoms and purple pansies hang from the trees.

Vaughan says he tries to get people to follow three main rules: Keep food and garbage to a minimum. Mind your manners and use common sense. And don't mess with other people's property.

Vaughan wants order: "I keep tellin' these guys," he said. "Shopping carts don't belong in the woods."

There have been violent episodes at the camp, including an incident in April in which police found a man seriously assaulted in his tent and took him to the hospital, according to police records. Vaughan says he keeps Narcan, to counteract opioid overdoses, in his tent and makes sure everybody knows it's available. He has personally administered Narcan to five or six people. He revived one woman three times, he said.

He is candid about his own struggle with amphetamines.

"Team no sleep," he said.

Davis Park is bordered by military land. Fighter jets from the nearby Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson runway fly so low and so loud that "it sounds like a missile," according to Vaughan. He says he tries to keep people from wandering through a Frisbee golf course, near the area where campers have set up.

"We try to avoid it, because it becomes a conflict," he said.

'100 years ago, we would have been called pioneers'

By population, the camp in Davis Park might be one of the largest and most persistent in the city.

The campers in Davis Park aren't typical: The core group, according to Vaughan and others, are people who live outside year-round, camping through subzero winter and contending with bears, moose and mosquitoes in the summer.

RurAL CAP outreach workers Josef Rutz and Jerry Staten visit often, bearing backpacks full of hygiene kits, snacks and Narcan. They want to build relationships, demonstrate caring and hopefully offer a bridge to housing.

But not everyone wants to live in housing.

Vaughan was raised in North Carolina but moved to Alaska in the late 1980s. He was an automotive mechanic but a series of DUI convictions derailed him, he said. About six years ago, he showed up in the Mountain View woods with a tent and never really left.

"One hundred years ago, we would have been called pioneers," Vaughan said with a rueful laugh. "Now I'm a vagrant."

Some at Davis Park say they've stayed at Sullivan Arena or other shelters but prefer to live outside.

"I'm just free outside," said Larry Tunley, born and raised in Anchorage and a longtime Davis Park resident. "I feel like I'm in jail if I'm indoors. I can't stand to be inside."

To Greg Smith, Sullivan Arena was never an option.

"It's unsanitary, it's unsafe. There's absolutely no way you can keep your stuff safe," he said.

Chasing campers doesn't work, said Melissa Foxglove. She'd been staying at the camp for more than six months. When camps had been dismantled before, they'd moved right out to the sidewalks, Foxglove said.

"I think the only place that is legal to camp here in Anchorage is the sidewalks," she said.

After a few weeks, "they shooed us right back into the woods."

Sanctioned camping

Some of the campers raised the idea of sanctioned camping, which cities such as Reno and Denver have tried. Foxglove said the city should consider allowing campers in areas where they could use garbage bins and access to water. For now, people have been filling jugs at a local laundromat.

Vaughan wondered about Centennial Park, a city-managed campground near Muldoon.

"I'd sure find a couple bucks a day to stay there," he said. "With bathrooms and water and all that."

So far, sanctioned camping isn't part of the city's homelessness plan.

Vaughan wasn't sure what the coming weeks would bring. But he expected that as soon as Sullivan Arena emptied out, more people would be coming to join the camp at Davis Park. If they had to move, they'd likely be back on the very same patch of forest soon enough, he said. It was just a matter of time.

Last September, on a day so cold the ground was frozen and layered in frost, Vaughan left the camp for a few hours to bring back food, water, propane for heaters and other supplies. He returned to find police and workers clearing the camp, dismantling his belongings and loading them into a vehicle to be carted away.

Vaughan said police wouldn't let him near his things to retrieve anything. So he sat down in the road, blocking their vehicles, and refused to move. Police arrested Vaughan and charged him with disorderly conduct, he said.

Later, he missed a court date, and the judge issued a warrant. When officers posted abatement notices last week, they found Vaughan inside his tent and arrested him.

A friend used a credit card to pay his bail the next day, $100. Others at the camp pooled funds to chip in.

Vaughan is weary of starting over, again and again.

"I just call it stealing," he said. "This is a family out here. We all take care of each other. Then they come in here and tear us apart."

The ADN's Marc Lester contributed to this story.