Curtis Davis sharpens a spike at his makeshift campsite near Juneau International Airport on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Curtis Davis sharpens a spike at his makeshift campsite near Juneau International Airport on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

With no official place to camp, homeless and neighborhoods alike are suffering miseries

Complaints to JPD nearly double, social agencies seek “safety zone,” many campers just want peace.

Curtis Davis said he was thankful to be spending his third straight day at a makeshift campsite amidst a few other tents in a strand of trees near the airport on Sunday, since he’s frequently been forced to move daily from spots around Juneau since mid-April.

That’s when the city’s cold weather shelter closed and — for the first time in many years — a designated campsite for people experiencing homelessness wasn’t available.

“There’s not one this year,” Davis said he was told by city employees when the shelter closed, getting no advice about where he could go.

Tents occupied by people experiencing homelessness stand across the street from the Glory Hall on Sunday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Tents occupied by people experiencing homelessness stand across the street from the Glory Hall on Sunday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Instead, local officials adopted a “dispersed camping” policy that means people without housing — and more than 320 individuals spent at least one night at the cold weather shelter during the past winter — are on their own when it comes to seeking shelter.

So far the policy isn’t working out well for anyone: agencies providing homeless services are seeking protection from threats by people as demand far exceeds supply; businesses and residents are reporting problems with neighborhood campers — plus, of course, struggles experienced by the campers themselves.

Next to a dome tent filled with Davis’ possessions was a wheeled cart with a large plastic tote, ready to be loaded and pulled elsewhere if he was yet again forced by police to move on short notice. He said he stayed in the library parking lot and under the docks with a sleeping bag during the first days after the warming shelter closed, working as a landscaper at the Church of the Nazarene to earn money for the tent and cart.

When the police forced him to move from various spots where he spent the night it often took until dark to find a new location. He said many campers near the Glory Hall — where some were allowed for meals and other services, and some were banned — packed up their tents in the morning and re-set up camp in the evening to avoid being asked to leave by police.

The former Mill Campground site near the Goldbelt Tram stands empty on Monday, with the tent platforms and other installations removed following the Juneau Assembly’s decision not to reopen the campground due to frequent reports of illegal activity last year. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The former Mill Campground site near the Goldbelt Tram stands empty on Monday, with the tent platforms and other installations removed following the Juneau Assembly’s decision not to reopen the campground due to frequent reports of illegal activity last year. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Yet Davis acknowledges the situation was also troublesome last summer at Mill Campground, which city officials refused to reopen this year due to reports of rampant illegal activity at the site and surrounding areas.

“It was (expletive) crazy. There was a lot of drug use going on,” he said. Also, theft was so bad “I had to hire people that needed to watch my stuff,” paying them with “a gram of weed” or some other compensation — including up to $20 cash for a full day of standing watch.

The dilemma is city leaders say they’re unable to find a suitable alternative campsite location — a proposal placing one next to the Thane warming shelter was rejected after nearby business owners protested — while a huge and wide-ranging group of residents say a do-nothing approach is also unacceptable.

The Juneau Police Department received 95 camping complaints between April 15 and June 9 of this year, compared to 49 during the same period last year, according to Erann Kalwara, a JPD spokesperson. Juneau Assembly member Wade Bryson, during a June 3 Committee of the Whole meeting, said a recent community meeting hosted by the Glory Hall attended by 34 people representing area businesses and nonprofits illustrates the direness of the situation.

“Every single business in the Valley surrounding this area has had a crime happen to them,” he said. “You would be hard-pressed to find any business anywhere in the Nugget Mall area that has not had some level of trespassing, harassment, burglarization, vandalism — the list goes on. Their assaults are happening and that threatening behavior is happening.”

Litter from what appears to be a camping spot in the woods near Vintage Business Park is seen on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Litter from what appears to be a camping spot in the woods near Vintage Business Park is seen on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

While business owners and others are being told to press charges when people are caught trespassing, often the damage from such disruptions — such as scaring away a van providing mobile health services at sites such as the Glory Hall — has already occurred, Bryson said.

“A crime is going to happen tonight,” he said. “And a crime is going to happen tomorrow night in the Nugget Mall area around this. It has to change. The business community is screaming for change. The providers themselves are asking for our help. The situation now is worse than it has ever been before…There’s a crime wave going on right now. It’s just the Wild West in the Valley.”

Uncertain solutions for a big problem caused by few people

While the problems are big, a relatively small number of people experiencing homelessness are causing them, according to both local leaders and people seeking shelter.

Katy Mccroy, who said she retired as a nurse at Bartlett Regional Hospital a decade ago, said she’s been homeless since November due to medical issues involving her partner that resulted in their losing their home. They initially stayed in a U-Haul and an extended-stay hotel that had a voucher program, but when that eligibility expired in May they moved into a tent among the group near the airport.

“For some reason we have developed their own little community out there,” she said, adding that because it’s CBJ property officials would have to post no-camping notices to force people to move. She said a key element among the campers who are coexisting is “acceptance, rather than denial — like ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to get away from you.’”

“They have to be as accepting of what society is as much as being responsible for their own behaviors and stuff,” she said. “But it’s like what it is. You have drugs flowing in freely through here. I mean we have cartel that live here, there’s no doubt about all that. And unfortunately I get to meet all these people. I smile a lot.”

A sign near Juneau International Airport states camping and other activities are prohibited. However, some campers are on city land nearby. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

A sign near Juneau International Airport states camping and other activities are prohibited. However, some campers are on city land nearby. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

As for getting out of their current predicament, Mccroy said she isn’t certain what the next steps will be.

“We are not addicts, we’re not alcoholics, we’re not from out of the country,” she said, noting there are social services available to such people that are not available to her and her partner. However, she said even those services are limited in their effectiveness when it comes to some individuals.

“The majority of time you will be dealing with heavy-core alcoholics and heavy-core addicts,” she said. “And you know it’s the individual’s choice as to whether or not they’re willing to take and make that process of change. I don’t see that much of an incentive right now in the Glory Hall. And I’m not saying anything against the staff. I’m not saying anything against the people that are there. But there’s just not that incentive. How do we incentivize them other than paying money?”

The Glory Hall and the warming shelter have both banned numerous people for violating policies, but campers interviewed said that simply ensures the most troublesome people remain among others trying to coexist peacefully.

One thing Mccroy is doing to try to raise awareness of Juneau’s current homeless situation is posting on social media. On Saturday she posted the first paragraph of what she hopes is the start of a blog, asking readers for feedback.

“In the heart of bustling cities, amidst the chatter of coffee shops and the hum of daily commutes exists a population often overlooked and misunderstood — the invisible homeless,” her post reads. “Unlike the stereotypical image of homelessness, these individuals do not fit the typical mold of living openly on the streets. Instead, they navigate an uncertain existence, often hidden from public view, yet their struggles are no less severe.”

What neighbors are seeing, however, is the trash, vandalism, aggressive behavior and other problems caused by some of the campers.

Deputy City Manager Robert Barr, during the Assembly’s Committee of the Whole meeting June 3, said a cluster of agencies operating services for the disadvantaged — including the Glory Hall, St. Vincent de Paul and the Teal Street Center — are requesting the city approve “a shelter safety zone” in the vicinity around their buildings. Such a policy, based on one adopted in Bellingham, Washington, would allow JPD to take enforcement actions against individuals for loitering in the area.

“They’ve been reporting and continue to report increased threatening behavior from a relatively small number of individuals that disrupt their operations, and create a challenging environment for their staff and for their other clients,” he said.

“Just a couple of weeks ago the Glory Hall incurred an additional $2,000 in dump fees that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” he added. “They didn’t budget for needing to clean up things like pallets, shopping carts, broken tents and miscellaneous material that was abandoned near their shelter.”

Items are scattered at a spot under the Brotherhood Bridge, where people experiencing homeless have camped this summer. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Items are scattered at a spot under the Brotherhood Bridge, where people experiencing homeless have camped this summer. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Barr, in a memo presented to Assembly members, stated a related possibility is attempting “to specifically define where, when, and/or how camping is allowable on CBJ property.”

“From a place perspective, developed parks and sidewalks could be prohibited, while greenbelts and natural area parks could be allowed,” he wrote. “From a time perspective, certain parcels that have regular daytime public use could be prohibited during the daytime hours, but included as potential camping locations during the night. From a manner perspective, individuals who CBJ and/or shelter provider staff have determined have regular access to a shelter bed could be precluded from establishing a campsite on CBJ property.”

However, some Assembly members expressed reluctance about implementing such restrictions, especially since Barr acknowledged “loitering is a challenging concept to define in a manner that is sufficiently precise both for residents and law enforcement officers to understand what behavior is not allowed.”

“I agree we absolutely need to find a solution that ensures everybody’s safety,” said Paul Kelly, one of two people newly elected to the Assembly last October. “But my concern with a specific zone where people are not allowed to camp is that we haven’t told them where they are allowed to camp.”

Mayor Beth Weldon, who earlier this year said “dispersed camping” appeared to be a preferable option to consolidating campers in a single place due to the scope of problems that occurred last year, said it also would be difficult to direct people to specific locations that aren’t city-sanctioned.

“We decided as a body not to have a campsite so I don’t know that we want to say ‘Here’s the areas you’re permitted to camp,” she said. “It’s more that these are the areas that we aren’t going to enforce the rules unless you make us enforce the rules by getting a bunch of trash or anything accumulated.”

Assembly members, acting on a motion by Weldon, agreed to delay specific action due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected later this month involving a municipal ordinance in Oregon that criminalizes homeless people camping on public property. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stated it agreed with plaintiffs challenging the law that “the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars a city from prosecuting people criminally for sleeping on public property.”

Meanwhile, when the Juneau Police Department receives complaints about camping “we respond and evaluate the situation,” Kalwara wrote in an email Monday.

“Simply camping in a public area is not criminal; however, we do address other criminal issues such as littering,” she wrote. “During last week’s Assembly Meeting, it was discussed that JPD, the City Managers and City Attorney will continue conversations about the issues.”

“Find a good spot for them”

Given the opportunity, some locals experiencing homelessness are able to rely on each other and services provided to get back on their feet.

“I went to treatment just to get off the streets,” said Jasmine White, sitting on a curb across the street from the Glory Hall on Sunday with a companion. “Down over at the campgrounds it was chaos. But now they’re spreading the chaos everywhere. Down over at the campgrounds at least people took care of each other. Everyone used each other’s resources. There was water, there was a bathroom.”

Jasmine White and Tyler Johnson relax on a sidewalk on Teal Street on Sunday. Both were homeless, but have found housing through agencies operating on the street. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Jasmine White and Tyler Johnson relax on a sidewalk on Teal Street on Sunday. Both were homeless, but have found housing through agencies operating on the street. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

On June 20, White will celebrate both her birthday and her two-year sobriety mark. She went to Rainforest Recovery Center for 28 days and then to Seward for six months. She said the Housing First program saved her room the entire seven months she was in treatment. Before finding housing, White stayed at Mill Campground.

“In my opinion, if there were to be a remedy towards something with the campgrounds it would probably be sober living or semi-sober living,” she said. “What encouraged me to get off of the streets was I had to put down the bottle to live a better life. I was blessed and very lucky that I had the resources that I had — these guys don’t. Not many people can get rides. They’re stuck. And because they’re stuck it’s even harder to find motivation.”

She said due to transportation issues she believes a homeless campground should be downtown since more amenities and recovery programs would be within walking distance.

White hopes she can be a good role model to other homeless people in Juneau.

Housing First is connected to the Glory Hall and has a long waiting list. It’s not sober living, but it does have a set of rules, counseling services and a clinic downstairs. White said her therapist helped her fill out her treatment application.

“Any addict, any alcoholic, it’s really hard for anybody to make it to any appointment,” White said. “If you want to get better, you have to set up appointments. It took me three years just thinking about being sober to get there. It’s not easy. It’s all the resources I took advantage of, but not everybody has that.”

Her companion, Tyler Johnson, also was among those experiencing homelessness who had at least a temporary solution due to getting a bed at the Glory Hall. But he said even people at the shelter who are working aren’t necessarily in a situation where they can move on.

“If there was anything approaching affordable housing in this town half of those people wouldn’t be here,” he said.

Garrett Derr bathes in a stream filled with coins tossed by people from a nearby footbridge along a path near Juneau International Airport on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Garrett Derr bathes in a stream filled with coins tossed by people from a nearby footbridge along a path near Juneau International Airport on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

While Juneau provides a high level of services for people going through homelessness and other struggles — indeed, Bryson said Assembly support for such services has ended up being a lure for indigent people in other communities — some of the help White received is under threat due to financial constraints.

Notably, Bartlett Regional Hospital is looking at trimming or eliminating six “non-core” programs including Rainforest Recovery Center, with a decision expected by the hospital’s board of directors later this month after considering public comments.

Residents still on the streets hoping to get off them have plenty of suggestions about steps the city can take to provide incremental degrees of help for people seeking long-term stability.

Isaac Stevens, 25, a lifelong Juneau resident, said he’s been homeless for the past five years following the death of his grandfather who kept the family together. He’s stayed at Mill Campground before, but didn’t know it was closed this summer and thus was getting ready Sunday afternoon to move from one temporary spot to another.

For him the first step is a stable place for people who aren’t disruptive to go.

“Maybe get people together who are going through the same thing and find a good spot for them,” he said.

Davis, having become used to hauling his housing around on wheels, said providing tiny portable shelters and a site where designated staff strictly enforce rules would help resolve issues that arose at Mill Campground. He said bears were a huge issue at the campground, for instance, because there was no way to enforce campers cleaning up their trash.

The former Mill Campground site, on land owned by Alaska Electric Light and Power Co., is now vacant of the 20 tent platforms and other installations that were there until this spring, with only a few scattered belongings on the ground and in trees serving as a reminder of people staying there the past few years. There’s also signs of recently abandoned individual camping spots in locations throughout Juneau such as downtown sidewalks, a bus stop in Lemon Creek and under the Brotherhood Bridge.

Staying in a roadside tent across the street from the Glory Hall on Sunday was Garrett Derr, who at times during the past year has been at Mill Campground and the warming shelter. On Sunday, while some fellow campers were grouped in the trees nearby, he was washing up in a stream along a nearby trail sprinkled liberally with coins tossed in by people from a footbridge — hoping that in addition to getting clean their good karma might bring him good fortune.

“I don’t want to steal people’s wishes, but I will take their nickels and dimes,” he said, leaving the pennies behind.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306. Contact Jasz Garrett at jasz.garrett@juneauempire.com or (907) 723-9356.

An eviction sign is posted in the window of a truck filled with bedding and other items in a parking lot near Juneau International Airport on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

An eviction sign is posted in the window of a truck filled with bedding and other items in a parking lot near Juneau International Airport on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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