By the time a Goldbelt Tram car was packed full of people near the Seawalk and rose up Mount Roberts to the top, Ashley Johnston had changed into her rain gear and was heading toward the local food pantry with an empty suitcase beneath the high-rising tourist attraction.
She borrowed her raincoat from a friend and had just obtained some snowboarding pants. Her hope is they keep her dry during her weekly two-mile walk to the pantry, going through the streets of downtown Juneau as cruise ships linger in the water nearby.
Johnston, 29, is one of the many people living at Mill Campground this summer. The campground is located on a hillside beneath where the tram passes.
Her home is a tent perched on one of the campsite’s 20 elevated wood platforms. The campground — which also provides portable toilets, drinking water and bear-proof food storage — is maintained in partnership between the city, AJT Mining Properties, Alaska Electric Light and Power, and the Glory Hall. This summer marked its fourth season.
Johnston’s fellow campers are almost entirely locals — as she is — who are in need of shelter. Even though thousands of tourists are nearby every day, only a few wander into the area.
The campground is seasonal. Though Johnston calls its grounds home for now, come mid-October all campers will need to pack up their things and find another place for shelter.
There’s a problem, though. Juneau’s campsite and warming shelter, along with other local shelters including the Glory Hall, continue to be stretched to their limits in terms of capacity, resources and staff. Among the reasons are lingering COVID-19 issues, inflation, the end of an eviction moratorium and lack of affordable housing units available.
For many people without homes when October came the past two years, that meant spending the daytime outside, or bouncing from warm place to warm place, before eventually making their way to the basement of Resurrection Lutheran Church which served as the warming shelter.
There’s another problem — the church congregation chose not to apply to operate the shelter this year.
“Right now there’s no emergency shelter in place at the church this winter,” said Pastor Karen Perkins while serving tea, juice and other drinks to residents during the church’s weekly food pantry Tuesday afternoon.
The shelter, which opened during nights when the temperature was below freezing in past years, typically opens immediately after the campground closes. But as the time ticks closer and no plans are in place, Johnston’s not sure where she will go if the shelter is not there.
Deputy City Manager Robert Barr said both Perkins and Johnston are correct. The church chose not to bid and the city doesn’t have a plan in place come October for people such as Johnston who rely on the shelter.
“We don’t really have a great option beyond that,” he said. “We put out a request for proposals to see if anyone in the community was interested in running the warming shelter again this year, as was our normal practice. Not only did they not apply, but we didn’t get any applicants.”
“We’re exploring a variety of options right now — we recognize that October is right around the corner and it’s a high priority for us right now,” he said.
The idea of using city property was raised by Barr, however he said there just isn’t a space to use.
“We just don’t have any property. That’s the problem,” he said. “We think we reached out to everyone who might have had the capacity to bid on this, but if there are places that we didn’t think of I would love for any organization or group that thinks they might have the capacity to do that work to reach out to me directly.”
A growing dilemma
The people who live at the campground and are patrons of the warming shelter are just a handful of the estimated 2,000 people experiencing homelessness in Alaska.
In Anchorage, the number of people experiencing homelessness is much more stark. A total of 1,760 people experiencing homelessness were counted in Alaska’s largest city — a 168% increase over the last year. And as the numbers continue to grow, so does the rise in deaths.
According to recent reporting from the Anchorage Daily News, 29 people believed to be homeless have died in the city so far in 2023, including six in a four-day period in July.
Those numbers, provided by incident data from the Anchorage Police Department, far surpass the number of deaths in 2022, and the surge follows the closure of a mass shelter in the city in early May.
Juneau Police Department spokesperson Erann Kalwara said the city does not have a way to pull similar data as Anchorage, so the number of deaths this year of people believed to be homeless in Juneau is unclear.
According to social services agencies, 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. Recently, a report by the Juneau School District showed a 59% increase in the number of students experiencing homelessness in the 2022-2023 school year compared to the year before.
According to Michelle Elfers, deputy director of the city park’s department, the number of people living at the campground typically fluctuates, but this year she’s noticed one constant.
“This is the most full we’ve ever seen, it’s at capacity, actually over capacity,” she said, noting the campground filled up almost immediately following its opening and some people have begun creating sites beyond the 20 dedicated tent platforms.
Elfers said expanding the area to allow more platforms has been thought of, but due to safety and legal barriers the expansion isn’t likely possible.
Not where she wants to be
Cherish Ann Blake, 33, a lifelong resident of Juneau, said this summer was her first time living at the campground. She said she was a personal care worker for elderly and disabled residents for about ten years until “domestic violence happened, drugs happened and then OCS (Office of Children’s Services) happened.”
Blake said she struggled to find various places to live the past few years and was staying at the Glory Hall earlier this year, but was forced to leave because of her drug use.
As the rain drizzled down Tuesday, she sat beneath an A-frame staked out between thin trees holding up blue tarps. As she sat on the floor of the wood tent platform, the dim glow of the light outside reflected to make a blue aura inside that cast a scant light on a few sleeping bags spread out, a small plastic stool and crate used as furnishings, and scattered personal possessions and a few grocery items.
She said life at the campground is rough, with thefts and disruptive behavior by some of her neighbors adding to miseries such as the rain and her personal struggles. Blake said she’s trying to take steps toward recovery, including participating in the methadone program at SEARHC’s Front Street Clinic that’s about a two-mile round trip each day, and is planning to talk to AWARE officials this week about a space at their shelter.
But finding the willpower to make such efforts is an immense challenge of its own, Blake said.
“You don’t want to get up and go anywhere,” she said. “Like this is its own little world right here anyways, you know? It’s like if you go anywhere else those people out there don’t care. They don’t know what’s going on out here.”
City parks officials occasionally visit to refill the freshwater tanks, maintain the outhouses and take care of other basic services at the campsite, Blake said. But she said she thinks there isn’t much effort from outside organizations to help residents there improve their situation, suggesting a city shuttle so people can get to essential services and a better plan for longer-term housing options are among things that would help the most.
Blake rejected a recent suggestion by Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson to buy plane tickets for people experiencing homelessness to warmer cities in the Lower 48.
“That’s kind of scary,” Blake said. “Going somewhere where I don’t know, compared to where I do know…I have a couple friends down south, but I don’t know if I want to go down there and just burden them with everything that’s happening.”
Hopeful for the future
Glory Hall Executive Director Mariya Lovishchuk said despite the unknown future of the warming shelter, she’s confident a solution will be found before the campground closes.
“I think we are going to find a location and I think it’s heartening about how much collaboration there is this year — I am very hopeful we will find a shelter,” she said.
She said the Glory Hall is similarly seeing a high number of patrons this time of year, and as the weather continues to change away from summer and into fall that could increase the number of people looking for shelter.
“We are completely full and we really are looking for dinner volunteer groups,” she said. “We don’t have enough volunteer groups.”
Lovishchuk said efforts and collaborations between the city and local non-profit organizations, like the Juneau Nonprofit Housing Development Council, are underway, and are constantly working toward developing and opening multiple housing projects. Among those are the downtown Glory Hall apartment project and the construction of an additional 28 housing units to its existing Forget-Me-Not Manor facility in the Lemon Creek area.
The Juneau Coalition on Housing and Homelessness is planning to convene for a retreat soon, where Lovishchu said the future of the warming shelter will likely be discussed at length.
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at email@example.com or (651) 528-1807.