When it hit the news this week, the letter signed by a group of mostly Democratic Anchorage legislators urging the city take a tougher approach to homelessness drove a wedge between Anchorage’s progressive leadership and its progressive legislative delegation.
The letter, which suggested shipping people off to Chugach State Park, has been widely panned with the ACLU of Alaska calling it “horribly inhumane and un-Alaskan” and called “heartbreaking” by the head of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.
Now one of the letter’s nine backers says he regrets the division created by the letter, which he called “poorly written.”
“The letter was poorly written and created an unnecessary rift between all of us who are working on the issues of homelessness, criminal activity, safety in our parks, mental health, and substance abuse,” said Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage. “As a life-long advocate for mental health and substance use prevention and treatment and a leader in a multi-prong effort to address our homelessness issues, I regret that and apologize for the tone of the letter.”
Begich’s mea culpa came in a letter sent to constituents on Wednesday as the community continues to grapple with the delegation’s letter.
The letter was signed by eight Anchorage Democrats (Reps. Fields, Tucks, Tarr, Drummond, Claman and Sens. Begich, Gray-Jackson and Wielechowski) as well as Anchorage Republican Rep. Sara Rasmussen.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz responded to the letter on Wednesday to defend the city’s response to homelessness, telling the Anchorage Daily News that the city has been left to fend for itself on issues that the state typically had helped with.
“Unfortunately we’re having to contend with a retreat from Juneau,” Berkowitz told the paper. “A lot of issues we’re dealing with now are the state’s failure to get things done in the past with mental health, drug and alcohol treatment.”
While camps have built up during the winter, the city has taken an active approach to clearing them out once the snow melted. Berkowitz told the ADN there more plans for bike patrols and camp cleanups soon.
Assemblymember Meg Zaletel responded to the letter in a post to Facebook, explaining the same concerns about the state’s involvement.
“I appreciate your efforts in Juneau,” she wrote, “but cannot stress enough that we need well-funded and coordinated mental health and substance abuse treatment strategies to address the underlying issues for a lot of individuals experiencing homelessness. I am working with my colleagues to see how we can have a more coordinated approach within the municipality, but we do rely on state funding to ensure adequate treatment services are available.”
Begich’s constituent letter suggests support for a resident-run homeless camps, an idea that has gained some traction in cities like Oakland.
“Recently I and my staff have been working with Rose Hubbard, a homeless advocate on her concept for a resident-run homeless option. I think this idea, or the tiny house concepts that have been pioneered in other localities around the country, offer opportunities for positive solutions to part of this issue,” he wrote. “The letter reflected our frustration in not being able to move fast enough to address these issues effectively. But good solutions take time and I hope we can move past the hard feelings the letter has generated toward a community with housing for all who desire it, mental health and substance use services for all who need it, and a safe, and clean city park environment for all our residents and visitors.”