Campground Seen As Stopgap For Unhoused People In Anchorage

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Dozens of people experiencing homelessness in Alaska's largest city will now camp at a city-owned site where bears recently tumbled through belongings, as a major local shelter closes.

The Sullivan Arena, which provided shelter for hundreds of people nightly for more than two years, is closing Thursday. The use of Anchorage's Centennial Campground as a place for people to stay is seen as a stopgap measure with indoor shelters full and Mayor Dave Bronson's administration clearing illegal campsites, citing fire danger, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

On Wednesday, the sound of an air horn blasted through the campground as a black bear and two cubs sauntered into the site. Individuals who were camping there and local health department workers tried to scare the bears off with the horn, shouts and claps.

Jimmie Hartley said he plans to string cans filled with gravel on a fishing line around his site to warn him of approaching bears.

Many of those who were arriving at the campground from Sullivan Arena had minimal gear. At the campground office Wednesday, local Parks and Recreation Director Mike Braniff and campsite staff discussed the issues they face as the campground shifts from hosting recreational campers to providing a place to stay for those with few supplies, limited camping experience and some with mental and physical health challenges and substance abuse issues.

One major question is determining how many people the campground can safely accommodate, along with site rules, Braniff said. "Right now, we’re not allowing any fires here,” he said. “Food safety and bear safety is at the top of our list.”

Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Dave Battle warned campground workers and Braniff that they would face further bear encounters without strict enforcement of safety measures.

The city is planning to have bear-safe food storage bins but it wasn't clear when they would arrive or how they would be shared.

Some of those at the campground arrived from illegal campsites cleared by police and city workers. Some came after hearing they could stay there legally with access to water and bathrooms.

People can stay at the campground for 14 days on a city voucher. It's unclear what happens then. City officials have said they are working on a plan. Construction of a planned shelter will not be complete until later this year.

Arthur Smith, who arrived Wednesday from a recently cleared encampment, said he would stay "as long as I can. I’ve been camping for five or six years. I want housing.”