Former Mayor Dan Sullivan wrote an article recently on homelessness. Dan and I don’t agree on much. But I read his piece hoping to find common ground. I found it.
As a former Municipal Prosecutor, I have been talking a lot on the campaign trail about better enforcement of our laws on vagrancy and petty crime through a specialized Homelessness Court with focused treatment and recovery options. I have also long supported a bond proposal to build a treatment facility in the Woronzof area, away from competing uses. I was pleased to see Dan advocate for both of these long-term solutions.
The debate on homelessness in Anchorage has become so heated that we miss where we agree or refuse to recognize good ideas from opponents. This is a mistake. We are only ever going to solve this problem by taking the best ideas from all sides.
We all want to take back our parks, keep our citizens safe, and hold people accountable for their actions.
The Berkowitz Administration and the Assembly are right that we need to take measures now to increase capacity, treatment options, and shelter capacity, before winter. We also have to take the pressure off of East Downtown by providing services in other parts of town. Whether this current proposal is a legal and appropriate use of CARES funding remains an open question. But they are right that we must build this capacity in the short term. I compliment both the Berkowitz Administration and the Assembly for looking for new answers and having the courage to propose them.
I believe that construction of treatment center in the Woronzof or other suitable area, owned by the MOA and remote from residential neighborhoods, for intensive, evidence-based alcohol and drug-abuse treatment is a great long-term solution. The State of Alaska should be helping us build and finance this facility, but until it gets its financial house in order, we cannot count on them. We have to do this ourselves with the cooperation of our local partners. I support a bond proposal to fund construction and use of alcohol tax proceeds to fund operations. I look forward to former Mayor Sullivan’s support when I present such a package.
I also believe that we cannot, morally or legally, criminalize being homeless. The homeless are us, but unlucky. We must protect and help them. I prosecuted criminals that preyed on the homeless and know how vulnerable our residents can be in the camps. Camping is simply not a safe or sustainable5 lifestyle. Enforcing the laws we have on the books in a humane way is not criminalizing homelessness.
As Mayor, I would work with the judiciary to create a specialized court for offenses associated with homelessness, including trespass, public urination, petty theft, illegal camping. This will help focus resources, consequences, and treatment options. In my experience as a prosecutor, these courts get real results. We should not allow repeated violations of our laws to go unpunished. San Diego and Spokane have good homeless court models we can adopt or adapt.
I also believe that using police officers to notice and evict homeless camps is expensive and inappropriate. We rarely need their specialized skills. Long ago, we determined that we could respond to drunk or other incapacitated persons with the Community Service Patrol rather than using an officer or an ambulance, with appropriate police or medical backup when needed. We have saved millions on this approach. I would implement a private contract for social workers to notice and evict from the camps, and provide referral and even transportation to appropriate services. This would save money, give us better information on the homeless population, serve them better, and free up our police for more important work.
We should all work together on 1) short-term solutions to build treatment and shelter capacity now 2) a bond proposal for construction of a treatment facility at Woronzof or other suitable site, 3) creation of a Homelessness Court to steer those offenders to treatment, and 4) a new contract for the notice and eviction of homeless sites to save money and provide better service.
Most importantly, to get more good ideas on homelessness, we need to have this discussion in a way that we really hear each other. It should not matter where a good idea comes from.
Working together, we can achieve real progress on homelessness in Anchorage.
Eric Croft is a candidate for Anchorage Mayor in 2021