A lot in Thane near the city’s cold weather emergency shelter, seen at right in the background, is being proposed as the site for a campground for people experiencing homelessness that would open in April. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A lot in Thane near the city’s cold weather emergency shelter, seen at right in the background, is being proposed as the site for a campground for people experiencing homelessness that would open in April. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Moving homeless campground next to warming shelter strongly opposed by nearby businesses

Damage, safety, theft among concerns cited in petition to Assembly, which considers proposal Monday.

Eddy Rodriguez says she’s had some worrisome encounters with other people while staying at the city’s cold weather emergency shelter during the past month, so she’s got some concerns about staying at a proposed campsite for people experiencing homelessness on a lot next door that would open in mid-April when the shelter closes.

“Not if they don’t supply a tent, a sleeping bag and sufficient items for each other,” she said while making the mile-long walk from the Thane shelter toward downtown Juneau on Wednesday morning. “Because (the campsite operators) come and they show up, and they only have so much, and they make it seem like they’re all doing it out of their pocket. And if they are then they should inform someone that ‘hey, you can find, you know, other places. Here’s information where you can get this stuff and we don’t have to worry about you.’”

Rodriguez, who said she’s lived intermittently in Juneau for more than 20 years, said she ended up at the warming shelter after finding herself without a place to live earlier this year. But some of the people on cots next to her have been troublesome and she’s concerned what might happen if strangers end up in her tent at the campsite.

[Surge in illegal homeless activity prompts city to look at moving Mill Campground]

Such concerns are foremost on the minds of city officials due to reports of drug use, prostitution, theft, assaults and other incidents at Mill Campground last summer, located a short distance from the shelter on a hillside near the Goldbelt Tram. The proposal to relocate the campground to a lot at the intersection of Thane Road and Mill Street was presented to the Juneau Assembly on March 11, with the suggestion the more visible roadside location might reduce problems, and the Assembly is scheduled to formally consider the proposal Monday.

Scattered debris remains on a tent platform at Mill Campground on Wednesday, where people experiencing homelessness have stayed the past two summers. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Scattered debris remains on a tent platform at Mill Campground on Wednesday, where people experiencing homelessness have stayed the past two summers. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

But strong opposition to placing the campground on the lot is being expressed by surrounding businesses due to extensive damage, theft and other problems caused since the warming shelter opened, according to owners and managers at the companies. A petition opposing the campsite is circulating among the businesses, as well as some downtown, with the intention of presenting it to the Assembly at its meeting. A letter specifying concerns signed by businesses near the shelter was also sent this week to Mayor Beth Weldon.

”We had a lot of destruction of property,” said Kyle McDonnell, vice president of business development for Alaska Coach Tours, which has dozens of buses in rows next to the shelter, in an interview Wednesday. “We had break-ins on our buses. A lot of theft, little parts that can’t go inside the mechanic shop. And then just the sheer amount of garbage that was left around our yard was astonishing, you can’t believe how much garbage is just left there.”

McDonnell said he’s been recording such activity on security cameras installed when the shelter opened, but while police have come by occasionally it isn’t resolving the problem.

“I actually cleaned up the bus yard yesterday and took, I would probably estimate, about 30 pounds worth of just clothes in between all the buses,” he said. “Then the drug paraphernalia, too, was pretty disturbing.”

The shelter, located in a city-owned warehouse in Thane for the first time during the past winter after being in a church in downtown Juneau the previous two years, is being operated by Juneau’s St. Vincent de Paul chapter. Jackie Bryant, director of the shelter, said Wednesday more than 320 different people have spent at least one night there and it’s been far more crowded than expected at times.

“This was set up for 40 people,” she said. “(The city) decided that’s the most would ever have. We’ve had 60 for a few times.”

Jackie Bryant, director of the city’s cold weather emergency shelter, inspects cots after people staying there depart on Wednesday morning. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Jackie Bryant, director of the city’s cold weather emergency shelter, inspects cots after people staying there depart on Wednesday morning. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Dave Ringle, executive director of the chapter, said reports of problems have “blown up” during the past few weeks. He said the shelter has also lost staff since February, which has made monitoring activities outside at the shelter, in particular the outhouses near the door, more difficult.

The videos from Alaska Coach Tours show some people shelter officials can identify, but “it’s not showing direct criminal activity,” Ringle said.

“We know that at first they were storing stuff under the buses and the bus storage containers, and it’s gradually gotten worse as the year goes on,” he said. “And there’s a limit to what the police can do with a video that shows a person walking through a parking lot or smoking in a parking lot. They’re on their way to the shelter. We don’t let them do it in our shelter, but we can’t control what happens on the way to the shelter.”

People at Mill Campground discarded about 74 tons of trash last year at the site and in neighboring areas, including thousands of needles totaling 19 gallons in volume, according to data presented to Assembly members earlier this month. Such figures — along with the safety risk to property and hundreds of seasonal tourism workers — is what alarms businesses suddenly faced with having the campsite relocated next door.

The struggle for city officials is any option selected is going to have negative impacts for some people, said Deputy City Manager Robert Barr, who presented the findings about Mill Campground as well as a report from the warming shelter’s first year at the Thane location to the Assembly.

“At the end of the day the analysis is what’s the best for the public,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “And one public purpose is what’s the safest, what’s the best for the potential campers? Another public purpose is what’s the impacts, both negative and positive, to the immediate group of businesses or neighborhoods wherever that campground is placed? And how does that get balanced?”

Part of the equation is considering the impacts of not providing a campground, Barr said.

“Of course then there’s an impact of the people who were potentially camped at a sanctioned campground versus what they would be doing without that, which would just be an increase in the amount of dispersed camping that we see around the borough,” he said.

Items left behind at Mill Campground last summer are displayed in a tree on Wednesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Items left behind at Mill Campground last summer are displayed in a tree on Wednesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Businesses near the proposed campground site are suggesting it be relocated — at least for this year — several hundred yards further south on Thane Road at the city-owned Little Rock Dump. As with the lot next to the warming shelter, the site currently stores industrial items that would need to be moved to clear space for a campground.

The idea was discussed with City Port Director Carl Uchytil who presented it to the local Docks and Harbors Board at its meeting Thursday night. But board members were unable to agree on a recommendation to the Assembly, with some expressing concerns about potential cleanup costs, impacts from campers, and if the “short-term” use might turn into a longer-range plan that would disrupt planned future use of the site for docks and harbors facilities.

Barr said he did walk to the Little Rock Dump to assess it as a possible site and has concerns that go beyond those issues.

“My recommendation to the Assembly will be that that’s not a viable option for safety reasons,” he said. “There’s no good pedestrian access to that site. Unfortunately you’re walking around a relatively narrow shoulder right next to relatively fast traffic. So that rules that one out for me.”

However, businesses near the warming shelter weren’t given sufficient notice or time for input when city officials were rushing to find a suitable location last fall, said Robbie Janes, general manager of Gastineau Guiding Company. He said the situation feels similar with moving the campground to the adjacent lot since the range of impacts isn’t being fully considered — and if the Assembly does approve the site significant preventative steps need to be taken.

“They’d need to have JPD down here on a pretty frequent basis,” he said. “I mean almost every half hour, especially at night, to make sure that this is a safe place. And closer to evening time we’re a guiding company, and we have a lot of young people who walk and bike to work — specifically, young women here. And so anytime after nine o’clock, or as the sunset starts getting earlier and earlier, having some people down here to more frequently patrolled area, and make sure that it’s safe down here and for our businesses so we can sleep well at night knowing that it’s being monitored.”

Similar security measures should be enacted for the warming shelter next winter, since city officials have indicated they intend to keep it at the same site at least one more year, Janes said.

Bryant, as the shelter’s operator, said there are plenty of future lessons than can be taken from the struggles and successes of the past winter. But she said her first preference would be to keep the warming shelter open throughout the year rather than asking people now staying there to prepare to camp out.

“I’m really worried for the summer because we’re not going to stay open,” she said. “We have a person here with a broken foot. It’s in a cast. We have another one with broken hands. We have a 72-year-old Native Alaskan lady that stays here. I don’t know how these guys are supposed to survive with no services. I honestly don’t.”

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

More in News

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Aurora forecast for the week of April 15

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Sunday, April 14, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

TJ Beers holds a sign to advocate for the rights of people experiencing homelessness outside the state Capitol on April 9. Beers was homeless for four years and in three states. “I don’t know how I survived,” he said. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
Lawmakers weigh whether to reduce or acknowledge rights of growing Alaska homeless population

As cities try to house people, Dunleavy’s protest bill would further criminalize them, advocates say.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Saturday, April 13, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Friday, April 12, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, April 11, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

The sky and mountains are reflected in the water on April 5, 2012, at the Kootznoowoo Wilderness in the Tongass National Forest’s Admiralty Island National Monument. Conservation organizations bought some private land and transferred it to the U.S. Forest Service, resulting in an incremental expansion of the Kootznoowoo Wilderness and protection of habitat important to salmon and wildlife. (Photo by Don MacDougall/U.S. Forest Service)
Conservation groups’ purchase preserves additional land in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

A designated wilderness area in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the largest… Continue reading

A welcome sign is shown Sept. 22, 2021, in Tok. President Joe Biden won Alaska’s nominating contest on Saturday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Biden wins more delegates in Alaska and Wyoming as he heads toward Democratic nomination

President Joe Biden nudged further ahead in the Democratic nomination for reelection… Continue reading

Juneau Assembly members and other visitors examine a meeting room formerly used by the nine-member Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development on Monday, April 8, which is about 25% larger than the Assembly Chambers at City Hall. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Of three possible new City Hall buildings, one stands out — but plenty of proposed uses for other two

Michael J. Burns Building eyed as city HQ; childcare, animal shelter among options at school sites.

Most Read