Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire 
Shelly Stevens, a Juneau resident since 1985 who’s been homeless since 2012, dries out in her tent during a heavy rainstorm Monday at Mill Campground alongside Raider, the communal “bear dog” for the 20-platform campsite for the homeless. Stevens said she has been alternating between the campground during warmer months and the city-sponsored warming shelter during the winter due to her struggles with alcohol and marijuana addiction.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire Shelly Stevens, a Juneau resident since 1985 who’s been homeless since 2012, dries out in her tent during a heavy rainstorm Monday at Mill Campground alongside Raider, the communal “bear dog” for the 20-platform campsite for the homeless. Stevens said she has been alternating between the campground during warmer months and the city-sponsored warming shelter during the winter due to her struggles with alcohol and marijuana addiction.

A saturated summer for homeless campsite

Mill Campground at or past capacity this year, but occupants and staff say communal spirit persists

For Shelly Stevens it was the start of another routine week on a particularly dreary Monday, lugging a duffel and a couple plastic bags from a church food pantry two miles away in pouring rain. She arrived “home” at Mill Campground by early afternoon, crossing the muddy campsite amid scattered piles of trash and debris to her awaiting tent, where inside the floor was merely a bit damp rather than drenched.

Stevens, 42, has been going through roughly the same routine for a decade, camping out during warmer months and spending nights in warming shelters during colder ones, as a Juneau resident who’s been homeless due to alcohol addiction and other issues. On this day she was greeted by one of the more notorious companions of the camping community, the “bear dog” Raider who’s hefty size and bark — although he doesn’t bite strangers — reveal the mix-breed’s pit bull genes.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire 
Shelly Stevens, a Juneau resident since 1985 who’s been homeless since 2012, dries out in her tent during a heavy rainstorm Monday at Mill Campground alongside Raider, the communal “bear dog” for the 20-platform campsite for the homeless. Stevens said she has been alternating between the campground during warmer months and the city-sponsored warming shelter during the winter due to her struggles with alcohol and marijuana addiction.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire Shelly Stevens, a Juneau resident since 1985 who’s been homeless since 2012, dries out in her tent during a heavy rainstorm Monday at Mill Campground alongside Raider, the communal “bear dog” for the 20-platform campsite for the homeless. Stevens said she has been alternating between the campground during warmer months and the city-sponsored warming shelter during the winter due to her struggles with alcohol and marijuana addiction.

Despite the dreariness of the day and ongoing daily toil to obtain essentials and perhaps help in establishing a more stable life — even if all those hours aren’t officially categorized as “work” — Stevens said she’s grateful for the community she’s in even as the town heads into the rainiest part of the year before winter sets in.

“Juneau takes care of its homeless better than anywhere on Earth,” she said, sitting on the edge of her bed inside the large dome tent that, like others on the campsite’s 20 elevated wood platforms, was donated by the Glory Hall.

Stevens said she’s lived in Juneau since 1985 and raised four children who are now grown and living elsewhere, which means “I never really took up a career.” Her addiction to alcohol and marijuana have remained a struggle despite constant efforts to seek assistance, so these days her family is the often-familiar faces she sees daily at the campsite as, with neighbors everywhere, they frequently join together for communal meals and to help out when somebody has a particular need.

“Everybody sticks together here,” she said.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire 
Shelly Stevens carries groceries from a food pantry to her tent at Mill Campground on Monday. She has been homeless for the past 10 years, saying that raising four children kept her from the workplace and her addiction problems since have been an ongoing struggle.

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire Shelly Stevens carries groceries from a food pantry to her tent at Mill Campground on Monday. She has been homeless for the past 10 years, saying that raising four children kept her from the workplace and her addiction problems since have been an ongoing struggle.

Higher homeless population, but fewer serious problems

Mill Campground, open for its third season on a forested mountainside where the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tram passes overhead a short distance to the north, offers free access and basic facilities that are maintained by the city, which leases the land from AJT Mining Properties for $1 a year. It’s scheduled to be open from mid-April to mid-October, at which point a warming shelter with limited hours on nights when temperatures are below freezing is scheduled to open for its second season at Resurrection Lutheran Church until next April.

While such chilly and soggy settings may not seem ideal, they’ve remained relatively peaceful compared to some other homeless sites elsewhere in Alaska this year, even though social services agencies report Juneau is Alaska’s most homeless city on a per-capita basis, with 1.5 times the rate of Anchorage and three times that of Fairbanks.

A police officer and camper were injured in a shootout at a 200-person homeless campsite Anchorage in July, for instance, and Mayor Dave Bronson shuttered the city’s Sullivan Arena mass shelter at the end of June, causing concerns about an absence of winter homeless housing until unveiling a proposal for temporary buildings this week.

But both the Juneau campsite and warming shelter, along with other local homeless shelters including the Glory Hall, are being stretched to their limits in terms of capacity, resources and staff due to lingering COVID-19 issues, inflation, the end of an eviction moratorium and housing that is too pricey and often unavailable.

“We regularly have all of them full, sometimes spilling over,” said Michelle Elfers, deputy director of the city park’s department, referring to the campsite’s 20 dedicated tent platforms.

While there isn’t a legal capacity limit requiring officials to kick people out, problems are arising when overflow campers are occupying spaces such as under a communal tent where people eat meals, said Dale Gosnell, a city parks ranger who is among a handful of people who provide essential services such as clearing trash and bringing drinking water to the site’s tanks. The campers are essentially responsible for properly behaving since there is no full-time staff, so disruptions often have to rise to the level of other campers needing to contact police for a response.

Dale Gosnell, a city parks ranger, explains Monday how essential services are provided at Mill Campground, including the locking bear-proof contains and fresh water tanks behind him. He spent the weekend loading trash and other discard items, including hypodermic needles, into his work truck as part of the routine maintenance duties at the site. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Dale Gosnell, a city parks ranger, explains Monday how essential services are provided at Mill Campground, including the locking bear-proof contains and fresh water tanks behind him. He spent the weekend loading trash and other discard items, including hypodermic needles, into his work truck as part of the routine maintenance duties at the site. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

“It is an unsupported option,” Gosnell said. “We don’t have the staff to have people there at all times.”

He spent part of last weekend loading his work truck with trash scattered about the campsite, including a few dozen hypodermic needles despite posted rules stating illegal drugs are prohibited. Because not all of the posted rules are strictly enforced in the interest of ensuring those needing shelter have it if they’re not harming others, some guidelines for the campsite are set in stone.

“We don’t allow minors, it’s just for adults,” Gosnell said. “It can be rough. Many are suffering from addiction and mental illness. It can get chaotic.”

Struggling to meet demands beyond enough space

There’s no official registry or checkout, so familiar faces who’ve been at the campsite for weeks or months may suddenly be absent due to hospitalizations, law enforcement troubles or finding more stable housing. But because the community they know is still at the campsite, another issue is making sure people in more secure situations don’t keep returning simply to be with friends.

“We need to make sure a person with housing is not at the campground,” Elfers said.

Staff at the Glory Hall, an official partner in the campsite project, help monitor people staying there, including arranging mobile medical clinic visits, counseling and treatment, and assistance for those seeking employment. Chloe Papier, the Glory Hall’s acting director, said staff also talks with those seeking shelter about their situations since the organization has a grant that pays for travel if people have families or others elsewhere who can provide help.

Bradley Perkins, co-pastor at Resurrection Lutheran Church, shows work being done on the warming shelter in the church’s basement as it prepares for its second year of operation next month. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Bradley Perkins, co-pastor at Resurrection Lutheran Church, shows work being done on the warming shelter in the church’s basement as it prepares for its second year of operation next month. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Such efforts, along with collaborating with the city and entities providing assistance, is especially urgent now because the new and larger shelter near Juneau International Airport that opened last year is at or near its 65-person capacity many days.

“Normally, that’s our number during the winter,” Papier said, adding 40 people daily is more typical for summer.

The increase in homeless people also means the campsite is having to haul water more frequently, empty the portable toilets three times a week instead of two and increase other routine duties. It also means more people bringing food, and leaving it or other items that may attract bears somewhere outside the locking storage containers designed to minimize encounters.

“People are not always good about storing food,” Gosnell said said. “Also they have pets and their food. It’s not a tight ship in terms of food storage.”

Still, the presence of bears was more of a nuisance and in 2019 — when people experiencing homelessness were at Thane Campground during its final year of operation — the site had to close for five weeks due to bears.

The Thane Campground opened in the early 2000s, intended as an affordable option for seasonal workers, Gosnell said. Typically it was 50-70% full during the initial years, until people experiencing homelessness began seeking it out as well.

“As it morphed more into a place for people who did not have housing we stopped charging because it was pointless,” he said.

The decision to move it closer to downtown Juneau was motivated by its accessibility by vehicle for workers providing services, as well as making it easier for those without transportation to reach it, Gosnell said.

“We had a whole lot of people camping on city parkland,” as well as disrupting downtown businesses, he said.

Seeking warmer shelter for winter and a better summer site in the future

Typically Mill Campground was 85-90% full until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in full force, Gosnell said. He said most staying there have phones or the ability to get downtown is serious trouble arises, but generally officials limit when a person is given a trespassing notice and forced to leave.

“Basically it’s if they’re threatening the health or safety of another person,” he said.

However, a trespassing notice is only effective for three days, Gosnell said. And removing them from the campground doesn’t eliminate them as a potentially disruptive presence.

“Some people just wander deeper into the woods,” he said.

Cruise ship passengers will occasionally wander into the campsite, with no notable encounters occurring, and once in a while recreational campers call the city asking about staying there, Elfers said. She said the latter are referred to other, more recreationally suitable local camping locations elsewhere.

Officials involved with the campsite agree the location still isn’t ideal and discussions about another location near downtown are occurring, said Alec Mesdag director of energy services for Alaska Electric Light and Power Co., a sister company of AJT Mining Properties.

“There’s no power to the site,” he said. “There’s no running water. The city’s long-term goal and our hope is a location can be provided that can provide those.”

When Mill Campground closes next month many occupants such as Stevens will start resorting to Resurrection Lutheran’s warming shelter, due in part to the Glory Hall’s limited space and other agencies such as St. Vincent de Paul Juneau limiting such help to low-income families and those getting placement through programs such as Housing First.

Occupation at the warming shelter during its first year in the church’s basement exceeded expectations, due to an unexpectedly cold winter that meant it was open every day between Nov. 15 and April 15, instead of the projected 80%, said Co-Pastor Bradley Perkins. According to the church’s website, the shelter provided 3,535 shelter nights for 346 people, with the average person staying 10 nights.

He said there were typically 30-40 people at the shelter nightly, compared to an expected 28, and while such numbers may continue this winter he said people won’t be turned away due to lack of space.

“We’re not leaving people outside in the cold,” he said. “If we had to we could take them upstairs” into the main part of the church.

But for people like Stevens for whom such existence has become routine, getting through another winter doesn’t necessarily mean things will get sunnier when they have to return outdoors next spring.

’“When they kicked us out in April, oh my God,” she said. “It was so cold up here. They kicked us out a little too early when the snow had just lifted off the ground.”

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

(Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
(Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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