Authorities are gearing up to clear out dozens if not hundreds of homeless people from what police call illegal camping spots in Anchorage woods, parks and greenbelts. Some of the campers have been there for years. Some say they don't intend to leave.
The crackdown comes nearly a year after police were barred by court order from enforcing a 2009 city law that allowed them to shut down camps and throw away the tents, blankets and other items left behind with as little as 12 hours' notice. A lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska contended the short time frame violated individual property rights.
Since the law was put on hold in July 2010, illegal camps have proliferated and their residents have become emboldened, said police Lt. Garry Gilliam, commander of the city's Community Action Policing Team, which deals with homeless camps and other community issues.
"We've allowed these illegal campers to usurp the face of the homeless that really need our help," Gilliam said this week.
Police now are operating under a new law, approved by the Anchorage Assembly in April, that gives illegal campers 15 days to clear out, or as little as three days if the city stores their tents, blankets and other property for them to collect later. The ACLU says that approach respects individual rights.
People who want help in getting housing, jobs and returning to society will get it, Gilliam said. But those who don't will be forced off city land. Many are just there to party, the lieutenant said. Some are alcoholics.
Life in the woods is hard and dangerous. Several homeless people have been murdered in recent years. Police say there have been rapes and assaults and arsons. Other city residents have increasingly become afraid to use the parks and trails, city officials say.
Police began posting warnings on illegal camps May 23 that gave people 15 days to clear out. What they leave behind can be thrown away, under the law.
Over several days, more than 200 tents were tagged, Gilliam said. So far, he said, none of the campers have gone to court to stop the city from tossing their belongings.
A sweep of camps will come soon, Gilliam said. Today he's meeting with a city parks supervisor who oversees community work service crews to figure out a schedule. Some misdemeanor offenders and juveniles do court-ordered service hours by clearing out the camps.
Among the spots targeted are the woods around Campbell Creek Park, just south of Tudor Road.
Around noon Wednesday, a dozen or so people were hanging out on the boardwalk by the creek near the end of Folker Street. Some were drinking beer. A young woman poured Hennessy cognac on the canned pears she was having for breakfast and offered some to the group.
Most said they lived in the woods but a few had better accommodations and just came to party or socialize. Some had criminal records. At least one was a registered sex offender, according to the identity he provided. But they also talked about the regular lives and jobs they once had. Paralegal. Office manager. Fisherman.
One woman rolled onto the wooden boardwalk in her wheelchair. She called the gathering her Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. A man explained that seeing so many stupid drunk people cut her desire to drink. She's been sober four years, she said.
Their tents were tagged in May but some of the campers said Wednesday they aren't leaving, even though their time is up.
"It ran out yesterday," said Shawn Dugan, 41. He and his girlfriend said they moved their camping spot about 50 feet away and think they should be good for a while.
But that legal analysis was deficient, according to Gilliam. Police documented individual camp sites and took photos of tents and inhabitants.
"We actually processed it, almost like a crime scene," Gilliam said. "We know who's in the tents."
Someone can't just pick up from one spot to another and start the 15-day clock anew, he said.
If police find already warned campers trying to burrow deeper into the woods, they'll get a trespass warning and 20 minutes to pack up and get out. If they don't leave, they'll be arrested, Gilliam said. If they move across town to a new spot in the woods, they'll likely get 72 hours' notice, then be forced off.
Michael W. Turk, a 48-year-old former fisherman who goes by "Turkey," said he doesn't have a tent up at all and doesn't intend to pitch one until the current ruckus over homeless camps dies down. He's been sleeping in a cubbyhole at a church, he said.
John Martin, 39, sat barefoot on the boardwalk with his dog, Shiloh. He said he spent 15 days walking from Anchorage to Tyonek along the coast this spring. Police put out a notice that he was missing. His mother paid for his airfare back, he said.
Before the new push, authorities tore down his big wall tent. Gilliam said it was more like a structure, and code enforcement officials ordered it removed. Someone then burned what was left.
Now Martin has another tent and it's been tagged for removal. His time was up Tuesday too. He's just leaving it there. If police and work crews haul it away, he said, he'll get another.
"I'm not trying to hide. I'm just trying to survive," he said.
The city crackdown will only push the homeless deeper into the woods, further isolating them from society and creating new dangers, he said. He expects someone will die in the winter after drinking and being unable to find his or her tent.
Police aren't going to let up, Gilliam said. "This will be a weekly occurrence." He said city residents should call police at 786-8900 whenever they spot an illegal camp in the woods.
Eventually, he said, people will tire of going through the trouble of building a camp, only to see it torn down.
He checked out some camps last week and said residents seemed to be getting the message.
"They are starting to pack up. They are starting to move," he said.
One of the biggest illegal camps is at Third Avenue and Ingra Street east of downtown, he said. Police counted 31 individual campers a couple weeks back. Then four more tents popped up.
Some guys were smoking marijuana in one and told police they didn't know who the tent belonged to.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.