ANCHORAGE, Alaska — According to the Anchorage Police Department, the city lost 13 people to outdoor deaths in 2010 -- and the year before, it was 14. Many who work with the homeless say the city has too much need and not enough resources.
"We absolutely do not have enough room. We don't have enough capacity to serve the people that need to be served," said Melinda Freemon with RurAL CAP.
The city has been trying to fix the problem since 2004, when then-mayor Mark Begich created a Homeless Task Force. Its goal was to come up with a 10-year plan addressing the issues and impacts of homelessness -- but the issue was pushed into the spotlight in the summer of 2009, which saw a cluster of 10 outdoor deaths.
APD spokesperson Lt. Dave Parker talked about some of the causes of the deaths.
“This is just another in the litany of deaths of people outdoors, spending a lot of time outdoors,” Parker said. “And there are other issues surrounding it, substance-abuse issues, those kinds of things.”
The city tried getting more housing off the ground including RurAL CAP’s controversial Karluk Manor project, which will convert the former Red Roof Inn Downtown into housing for chronic public inebriates -- but it won't be ready this winter.
No matter when Karluk Manor opens, many are concerned about what will happen afterward. Sharon Chamard, president of the Fairview Community Council, worries about homeless people being so close to children.
"Many people have a concern when they hear that sex offenders are going to be in a facility a block away from a park where children play, and two blocks away from our community recreation center," Chamard said.
With shelters overflowing and facing rising costs, however, the city doesn't have many options. In a small step to ease demand for housing, last year the Anchorage Assembly approved the city cold-weather plan, which allows churches to open their doors to house the homeless when the temperature drops below 32 degrees.
"There's facilities that aren't used in the middle of the night and you're able to take people in, and it's a powerful thing for us to do in our community," said the Anchorage City Church’s Richard Irwin.
Many of the homeless still find shelter in homeless camps. Dan Ennis, who has been on the streets for four decades, knows living on the streets is dangerous -- his ex-girlfriend died of exposure.
"Every time there is a death out there, it get publicized in the paper and on the news,” Ennis said. “And the public, they have an outcry: ‘We’ve got to get rid of them.’”
In January, Superior Court Judge Mark Rindner ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, saying a city ordinance that gave the homeless five days to gather their belongings before the removal of illegal campsites was unconstitutional.
While the policy is still in court, however, Anchorage's homeless population remains out on the streets, leaving many in the community wondering what they can do to find solutions.
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