Anchorage representative Zack Fields believes the municipality should be doing more to abate homeless camps. Fields expressed that opinion in a letter addressed to Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and Police Chief Justin Doll — one that was signed by eight other Anchorage legislators.

The other legislators backing the letter include Representatives Matt Claman, Harriett Drummond, Sara Rasmussen, Geran Tarr and Chris Tuck, along with Senators Tom Begich, Elvi Gray-Jackson and Bill Wielechowski.

“Most people in this neighborhood and most people in Anchorage want to do all we can to help homeless people,” said Fields. “But we can’t turn a blind eye to criminal activity that is sometimes happening in the same area where homeless people are sleeping.”

Fields says homeless camps are the number one concern among his neighbors. He says there’s no doubt that criminal activity is occurring.

“I think if you walk through an encampment and there’s a bike chop shop and a bunch of hypodermic needles lying around, it’s pretty clear that illegal activity is going on there.”

In the letter, Fields refers to a 9th Circuit court decision (Martin v. Boise) which he says gives the city authority to remove homeless camps from public parks immediately instead of the approach the city is taking now. But City Attorney Becky Windt Pearson says the issue is not so clear-cut.

“I think the letter oversimplifies the different legal restrictions that we are dealing with,” she said.

Windt Pearson says the city interprets the law to mean the municipality cannot abate homeless camps if there is no indoor place for people to sleep, which can happen if the shelters are full. She believes campers are owed due process.

Campers get 10 days’ notice before camps are abated and personal belongings are removed. If the city acts before the 10-day period, the belongings must be stored.

Widnt Pearson says the decision referenced in the letter may be open to some interpretation and the city would certainly take a deeper look. For now, she feels comfortable that the city is following the law.

“We have data that shows that we’ve done far more abatements this year than in the prior two years,” said Anchorage Homeless Coordinator Nancy Burke, claiming the city is making progress that is sometimes hard for the public to see.

Burke says residents can check that progress by going on the municipal website and clicking on new maps that show which camps have been cleaned and which ones are scheduled to be cleaned. Another map shows the areas where camps have been reported to the Anchorage Police Department. 

According to Burke, the city has taken a slow and steady approach to removing people from greenbelts and focusing not just on shelter, but permanent housing. She says in the near future they hope to publish a list online where people can see actual numbers of how many people have been helped and where they’ve ended up.

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