An assortment of furniture, clothing and other household items are exposed to the elements at Mill Campground after being left behind by residents who departed ahead of the campground’s closing last October. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

An assortment of furniture, clothing and other household items are exposed to the elements at Mill Campground after being left behind by residents who departed ahead of the campground’s closing last October. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

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

Lot next to cold weather shelter considered after report cites drug use, violence, other trouble.

A campground for people experiencing homelessness has become a grim site for illegal drug use, prostitution, theft, violence, garbage dumping and other illegal activity, according to a report presented Monday night to Juneau Assembly members, who unanimously agreed relocating the campground to a nearby and more visible roadside location should be considered for its scheduled opening next month.

The problems reflect increasing incidents of disruptive behavior by Juneau’s homeless community and complaints from neighbors of the campground, Deputy City Manager Robert Barr said during an Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting.

Assembly members offered differing views on addressing the situation ranging from one who said “we are incentivizing homelessness” with the year-round public resources available, while another noted the increase in homelessness and problems cited are occurring nationwide.

The report Barr presented Monday also offers a mixed, but more positive, assessment of a cold-weather emergency shelter operating for the first time this past winter at a city-owned warehouse near the campground. Capacity, cost, safety of shelter staff and thefts/break-ins at surrounding businesses are noted, but the report suggests they can be largely mitigated and recommends the same site be used as a shelter next winter.

The full Assembly is scheduled to hear a proposal to relocate the campground on April 1, with an opportunity for public testimony during the meeting. The campground typically opens in mid-April when a designated cold weather shelter site closes for the season.

A city-owned warehouse, at left, being used as a cold-weather emergency shelter has had a generally successful first season, but there are concerns about staff safety and illegal activity such as break-ins at nearby businesses including a tour bus company, according to a report presented to Juneau Assembly members Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

A city-owned warehouse, at left, being used as a cold-weather emergency shelter has had a generally successful first season, but there are concerns about staff safety and illegal activity such as break-ins at nearby businesses including a tour bus company, according to a report presented to Juneau Assembly members Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Mill Campground is on property leased by the city about a mile south of downtown that’s owned by Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. The campsite opened in 2020, replacing the older Thane Campground further south of downtown, but Barr’s report states “the overall tenor of the campground has been deteriorating over the past couple of years.”

“Neighborhood complaints have increased along with apparent criminal activity — drug related activity, transactional sex, vandalism, thefts, garbage dumping, threatening behavior,” the report states. “The neighborhood at the end of Gastineau Ave was particularly impacted last year and had a series of meetings with staff at JPD and the Manager’s Office to discuss mitigating impacts. We collected 74 tons of solid waste over the season (roughly the equivalent of 41 cars) and 19 gallons of sharps.”

In addition, “some of the campers cut and burned AELP transmission poles, which is a bright line issue for the utility and community.”

Barr presented four options to the Assembly, with a preference of moving the campground to a lot at the intersection of Thane Road and Mill Street that’s adjacent to the current cold weather shelter.

“Is just much easier to access and it is about the same size as the current Mill Campground,” he said. “It has lots of pros and cons. Some of the pros are that it will be easier for our staff or our park rangers to provide the best service…this is kind of the most status quo option that we have for you to choose from. The only increase in service that I can immediately imagine here is that instead of doing cleanups at the end of the season we would we would be able to clean up more frequently, because of the ease of access.”

The roadside site will also allow easier access for emergency responders, community organizations such as the Glory Hall that provide services to the homeless and it will be easier to manage bears who have been a frequent problem at the existing campsite, according to Barr.

However, his report notes it means there will be broader public impacts due to the increased visibility and traffic where the lot is located. He stated it will also affect businesses in the vicinity, which have not yet had an opportunity to provide input on the proposed new campground site.

“Thefts and break-ins have occurred in the Rock Dump area at an increased rate since the establishment of the (cold weather emergency shelter),” he wrote. “There’s no reason to expect this to abate and it may increase or decrease with the campground. JPD has been effective on this front and some property has been recovered, but it remains a challenge.”

It will cost roughly $100,000 to relocate existing Mill Campground facilities such as tent platforms, portable toilets and a cooking shelter to the new site, with the cost possibly doubling if officials opt to pave over the current campground site, Barr said. The city currently spends about $70,000 for the Mill Campground, mostly for cleanup and garbage removal.

Another option presented by Barr was discontinuing a city-supported campground, which would be “deciding on a dispersed rather than concentrated camping strategy.”

“Illegal camping on public and private property will increase in the number of total camps,” his report states. “Operationally, like other governments with enforcement responsibilities, CBJ would tolerate illegal camping on public property until safety concerns and/or the impediment of typical public use reach a subjective critical point, at which point camps would be closed, cleaned up, navigator services provided as much as possible, and another camp would pop up elsewhere.”

A third possibility would be operating the Mill Campground at the same site as last year, which Barr called the highest-risk option. The fourth is keeping the cold weather emergency shelter open year-round, but he questioned if there is adequate qualified staff for year-round work, the likelihood many people would avoid the shelter during the warm months and the potentially high cost.

Concern about the level of homeless services Juneau is attempting to provide was expressed by Assembly member Wade Byrson, reiterating previous comments on the issue, said “we are going to get more of the behavior that we incentivize.”

“Every time we make it a little bit easier to become a homeless individual in Juneau we are incentivizing staying in that situation,” he said. “I know that sounds harsh and that’s not every single person’s situation…(But) we have a willfully non-compliant homeless contingent that we cannot get to participate in the rules and the system that we’re trying to set up for them.”

In response, Deputy Mayor Michelle Bonnet Hale noted the increasing homelessness is a national problem — so people aren’t necessarily flocking here to take advantage of services — and referred to one winter when she lived downtown where a mentally ill man spent the winter in a doorway across the street before the city had a cold weather shelter.

“So I think those are some of the tradeoffs that we’re talking about here,” she said. “There’s no good answers.”

The cold weather shelter has been averaging 41 people a night since it opened last Oct. 20, although the average is about 50 per night since Jan. 1, Barr said. He said St. Vincent de Paul Juneau is generally doing a good job as the city-contracted operator, but there are challenges involving staff safety because the people staying there are “more challenging to deal with.”

“By definition this is our lowest-barrier shelter in Juneau,” he said, noting some people staying there are banned from other facilities such as the Glory Hall. “And we’re more likely to see behavioral and safety-related challenges.”

The city is spending about $250,000 in contractual costs per season for the shelter and expects to enter into an agreement with St. Vincent de Paul Juneau for next year. He said the city is also planning to install indoor plumbing and restrooms at the facility this year at a cost of about $50,000.

Among the unexpected challenges during the warming shelter’s first season was the amount of illegal drug use, either before arriving or while in it, said Dave Ringle, executive director of Juneau’s St. Vincent de Paul, in an interview Monday night.

“The fact that people would try and use it openly within the shelter was a little bit surprising,” he said. “And that was stopped within weeks. I don’t think that open use of drugs is happening now, it’s happening before they come. But that’s going to happen with these people whether they’re sheltered or not.”

Ringle said his organization is also trying to work with surrounding businesses, where complaints have become more frequent lately. In particular he said there have been a number of break-ins to tour buses owned by a company adjacent to the shelter, often during daytime hours when the shelter is closed.

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

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