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In Mountain View, neighbors pay it forward

By Kirsten Swann 12:50 AM October 18, 2013

Gunshot wounds and garbage problems bring residents together

ANCHORAGE – When Mark Harms first moved to Anchorage more than twenty years ago, one of the first things he received was a warning.

“Someone told me, ‘Don’t live anywhere with a view in it, Mountain View, Fairview,” he said Thursday afternoon. “Right now, after what has all happened, I really wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

Harms, 51, was standing outside a two-story stucco in the heart of Mountain View, dressed casually in hand-me-down khakis, a worn newsboy cap and a bright blue hooded sweatshirt with the phrase “communities mobilizing for change on alcohol” emblazoned across the chest. He’d had his own struggles with alcohol. These were some of the only clothes he owned that weren’t caked in dried paint and caulk, he said.

Other than the thick calluses on his hands, Harms had little to show for the 30 years he’d spent working for local carpenters’ unions. He said he and his longtime girlfriend stayed one step ahead of homelessness by bouncing from apartment to apartment, repairing and renovating them in exchange for rent. Harms had been in the process of fixing up a Mountain View fourplex three weeks ago when everything came crashing down.

He was shot twice after an altercation with a drunk driver outside his apartment. Unable to work and barely able to walk, Harms was at a loss.

And then, he said, “God works in mysterious ways.”

A neighbor who had heard about Harm’s injuries showed up the next day with a meatloaf and a piece of advice: Go see Mother Lawrence.

Alice Lawrence, 78, has distributed free food and clothes from her Mountain View stucco for the past 40 years. Her yard is overgrown and unkempt, and the driveway running up alongside the house is crowded with cars and trash and donated goods and hungry people waiting for a free meal.

Harms said that’s where he found the old walker that allowed him to show up in court for his attacker’s arraignment just a few days after he was shot. And when Lawrence heard about his predicament, Harms said she blessed him so powerfully he was back on his feet before he knew it.

“I asked her what I could do for her and she said make the garbage stop,” he said.

So, for the past few days, Harms has been helping to clear the debris from Lawrence’s property. There are big black plastic bags filled with diapers and boxes of moldering books, bedbug infested mattresses and broken furniture. Some of the things -– like Harms’ walker –- are still useful.

About fifteen people rent rooms in Lawrence’s house, and many of them find clothes among the bags and boxes abandoned on her porch and yard. Harms said everything he was wearing Thursday came from her.

But it was becoming a problem. The bugs from the piling trash had made their way into Lawrence’s home, and Harms said he made three separate trips to the dump last week in an attempt to clear some of the debris from her yard.

“It’s been happening for 40 years, people have been bringing stuff here and just dumping it off,” said Harms, gesturing towards the driveway. “Someone has been dropping off whole apartments here, and now with the bedbugs and roaches and other problems, it’s got to stop.”

He made a homemade sign – black letters painted with broad strokes on a sheet of plywood – telling people to stop dumping trash in the yard. Using twist ties to hang it on the chain link fence around Lawrence’s yard, Harms said he hoped people would get the message: No more dumping.

“I’m trying to give back — I’m trying to give back to Mother Lawrence,” he said. “I’ve done an awful lot of taking. It’s time to start giving.”

More people began to gather, wandering in off the street as the clock ticked closer to 4:30 in the afternoon. That’s when Lawrence would begin distributing the big boxes of assorted foods stacked on her kitchen table. The people she fed stood around the yard smoking and talking while they waited, and some of them strolled inside to sit in the big pews lined up in Lawrence’s dark, quiet living room.

Outside, Harms shuffled back and forth between the side of the house and the dumpster in front. He threw out a twisted metal bed frame, an old, smashed microwave and a pile of soggy acupuncture textbooks. He swept up piles of broken glass littering the parking lot, and decided to keep an old polo shirt crumpled on the front stoop and a trash bag filled with unused disposable diapers.

“Someone could use these,” he said, propping the bag up against the side of the house.

Maybe a local refuse company would donate a container to separate the usable donations from the trash, Harms mused. Maybe they could put it on the empty lot across the street, and the homeless and needy who cut through on a daily basis could find warm clothes or something else useful.

Lawrence has been giving a hand up to her Mountain View neighbors for decades now, he said. She touched his life, and inspired him to pay it forward.

“This is my community,” Harms said. “If you just try to help someone every day, that’s what we’re here for.”

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