Full-timing RVer and RVtravel.com reader David J. was staying at Centennial Campground in Anchorage, Alaska, last month. He noticed there seemed to be a lot of outgoing RVers, but as he and his wife were away visiting family often during the day, he didn’t pay much attention. Then they learned the reason: The campground’s owner, the City of Anchorage, had canceled all reservations.
The reason? City officials were turning the campground into a homeless encampment. “Since we were already on-site for our two-week stay,” relates David, “they didn’t kick us out, but offered a refund. We didn’t feel threatened at all, so we opted to stay.” In the end, David and his wife were the only “paying” customers left on-site until the end of their reservation period. What’s behind the city’s unusual move, and how will it impact RVers in the future?
Emergency shelter shuttered
Anchorage, like other big cities, has struggled with the problems of homelessness. Nearly two and a half years ago, during the heat of the coronavirus pandemic, the city opened its Sullivan Arena as an emergency shelter. At the peak of its use, the arena hosted 500 people, sleeping on cots on the main floor. Federal pandemic relief funds were used to cover the cost. Meanwhile, plans had already been in the works to establish more suitable permanent shelters.
But in late May or early June, folks taking shelter were disturbed to see signs indicating the city would close Sullivan Arena at the end of June. By that time, the numbers staying at the arena had dropped to around 100. Many were staying in homeless encampments around Anchorage. Greenbelts and trails served as ersatz camps. But unusually dry conditions led to fires—over 200 fires broke out in or near the camps from April on.
With the arena closing, and fire danger, Anchorage’s mayor, Dave Bronson, made a sudden declaration: Close the homeless encampments. Since federal laws tell municipalities they can’t kick out homeless people without an alternative, Bronson’s alternative was to convert Centennial Park for use by the homeless. The 86-site campground suddenly saw buses dropping off folks carrying garbage bags full of their possessions. The city provided vouchers to some for tents. At a recent count, at least 180 people are crowded into Centennial.
Major challenge an understatement
Turning a municipal campground that normally hosts folks who use self-contained RVs into something suitable for people living in tents has proved a major challenge. Toilets in the campground’s two bathrooms were said to be overflowing. Mental health issues among some led to problems; sadly no arrangements are in place to handle them. On a more down-to-earth level, the nearest food seller is a 20-minute hike away from the campground. For those with physical disabilities, it may as well be on the moon.
Feeding a mass of people in a wide-open area of Alaska presents its own problems. While the city brought in food-lockers, bears have been attracted to the smell of food. Last week, a sow and three cubs showed up at the campground and began ransacking tents. Fish and Wildlife crews were dispatched—and the bears were dispatched, terminally. A nonprofit has now brought in a food truck, serving three meals a day at Centennial. They hope their provisions will prevent campers from improperly storing food, and reduce bear encounters.
Mayor Bronson originally declared folks could stay at Centennial for two weeks. The situation is still ongoing. City Assembly members are up in arms. There had already been acrimony between the mayor and the Assembly, but now the situation is even more tenuous.
When can RVers go back to Centennial?
What does the situation hold for RVers looking to get back into Centennial? The park’s official season closer is September. With the homeless situation in place, and no clear end date in sight, it could be that there won’t be any opportunity for the RVing public to get back into Centennial in 2022. A look at the reservation system for Centennial shows a map of the campground. For every campsite, the “status” symbol is a question mark: Status unknown.
Sad to say, “status unknown” is an apt description for a lot of things in this old world. For RVers and homeless alike in Anchorage, when the chill winds of winter blow in, it’s a good time to be anywhere but in a campground at the foot of the Chugach Mountains. We’ll keep you up to speed on the situation as details become available.