A fenced lot proposed as a campsite for people experiencing homelessness located next to the city’s cold weather emergency shelter, in the background, is also next door to a businesses where extensive construction is scheduled, thus prompting city leaders to rethink the proposal. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

A fenced lot proposed as a campsite for people experiencing homelessness located next to the city’s cold weather emergency shelter, in the background, is also next door to a businesses where extensive construction is scheduled, thus prompting city leaders to rethink the proposal. (Photo by Laurie Craig)

Indefinite ‘dispersed camping’ for homeless proposed by city leaders due to lack of suitable campsite

Proposed Rock Dump site is next to long-term construction, more costly than expected, report states.

For the first time in years a designated campsite for people experiencing homelessness in Juneau will not be available after the city’s cold weather emergency shelter closes — currently scheduled for Tuesday morning — as city leaders are now recommending against a proposal moving the Mill Campground to the Rock Dump industrial area due to nearby construction and higher-than-expected costs.

The lack of an officially sanctioned site means the Juneau Assembly will be asked during a Committee of the Whole meeting Monday to consider authorizing “dispersed camping” indefinitely until members approve a designated location.

“Frankly, there continue to be no good options,” Deputy City Manager Robert Barr wrote in a memo scheduled for presentation to Assembly members.

An assortment of furniture, clothing and other household items are exposed to the elements at Mill Campground on Oct. 15, 2023, after being left behind by residents who departed a day before the campground officially closed for the season. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

An assortment of furniture, clothing and other household items are exposed to the elements at Mill Campground on Oct. 15, 2023, after being left behind by residents who departed a day before the campground officially closed for the season. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

The existing Mill Campground on a hillside near the Goldbelt tram saw extensive illegal activity including drug use, assaults, prostitution and theft both at the site and in a nearby neighborhood, according to city officials. Moving the campsite to the intersection of Thane Road and Mill Street was proposed by city leaders a month ago, with Barr stating the move visible roadside location would make access by people providing services easier and possibly deter some of the illegal activity.

But businesses in the area about a mile south of downtown Juneau strongly objected, citing numerous problems that have occurred during the winter due to the cold weather emergency shelter. In addition, a business owner next to the lot where the campground was proposed told the Assembly at an April 1 meeting a year-long expansion project has just started.

“For this vulnerable population you will, in essence, be putting them directly on a construction site for the entire summer and into next winter,” Michael Tripp, principal owner of Timberwolf Ventures, said during the meeting.

Barr, in his memo, stated the construction wasn’t known to city staff when the site was initially recommended and “we have not had time to dive into the details around compatibility.” Furthermore, he stated, there is another complicating factor.

“Since our last meeting, we received an extremely high cost estimate – far above our assumptions – to move the existing equipment from the 100 Mill St. site to a different location,” he wrote. “We are waiting for another estimate.”

A preliminary estimate of $110,000 was offered by Barr when the industrial location site was first proposed. The lot is owned by Alaska Electric Light & Power Co., which also owned the land when Mill Campground was placed, and equipment would have to be moved from there while campsite fixtures such as tent platforms, portable toilets and bear-proof trash containers would need to be installed.

City staff will continue to work with entities providing homeless assistance, Barr wrote, with a general agreement the best near-term solutions involve:

• Continuing to work to connect individuals to housing solutions.

• Continuing to meet on this topic to maintain awareness and evaluate options.

• Addressing dispersed camping as it occurs with “general acceptance/allowance of campsites when minimally impactful,” and “abatement of campsites when significantly impactful.”

Barr is recommending Assembly members schedule an ordinance for introduction at its regular April 29 meeting that authorizes a campground for people experiencing homelessness, exempting it as “an essential public facility” from land use codes. If the ordinance were approved, it would allow the Assembly to subsequently and quickly approve a designated site by passing a resolution.

Extending the operation of the warming shelter past Tuesday’s scheduled closing is problematic due to lack of staff, said Dave Ringle, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Juneau, which is operating the shelter at a city-owned warehouse in Thane for the first time. He noted rules and procedures for dealing with various aspects of managing the shelter evolved over the winter, meaning it would be difficult for people with no experience or training to step in on short notice.

“We set up some policies and principles that I think made a tremendous change in the overall tone of the shelter,” he said Friday. “It took time. It was not without hiccups. And I know the businesses in the neighborhood will probably be concerned. I think they’re more concerned about not having supervision than having us there making sure that the shelter is well run and provides as little disruption as possible to the neighborhood.”

Furthermore, operating the shelter during the summer is a significantly different prospect than during the winter, since it is located a short distance from where cruise ship passengers disembark and in an overnight parking area for many tour buses, Ringle said.

“It was one thing to do that in the winter when the operations were closed and we could just look at monitoring activity in the area,” he said. “Every week from now until the cruise ship season it’s going to get busier and busier there earlier and later, so there’s more potential for conflict.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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