So, recently the Municipality of Anchorage suddenly came down with a case of “crisis.”
You’ve seen this before, much like an 8th grader the morning of a big test, governments come down with cases of “crisis” at very convenient times. It happens when presidents need better poll numbers near an election and it happened again on July 19th in Anchorage.
On that beautiful breezy night, many of the organized protestors that were occupying space on the Delaney Park Strip, moved to Valley of the Moon Park, which closes at 11pm. The Anchorage Police Department and Christopher Constant, the downtown Anchorage Assemblymember, started gathering at the park shortly before the park closed at 11pm.
In consultation with Municipal leaders, the Anchorage Police Department decided, for whatever reason, that if the campers had moved off the manicured lawn and into the woods, they would no longer be trespassing in a closed park. When pressed by media members at the park, APD leadership had no clear answer as to why they were permitting camping in the wooded area of the park.
Before the park closure at 11pm, the entire oncoming shift of APD officers converged on Valley of the Moon Park. They came in packs and filled the street on both sides, as well as most of the parking lot with police cars. Officers guarded the entrances to the parking lot and the entire group walked their way over to the protesters. (Nearly all of whom were off the manicured lawn and into the woods well before closing)
APD Leadership at the scene claimed they were conducting a “shift change” at the park instead of at the station. However, I never saw any sort of shift briefing, nor did I see the entirety of officers gathered together at any point. Some were stationed at both entrances to the parking lot; others were standing in front of protestors, not doing much of anything. I’m not sure what, if anything, they believe constituted a “shift change” at the park.
That was Friday. On the following Wednesday Mayor Ethan Berkowitz made an emergency proclamation, declaring the city was in a crisis due to budget vetoes by Governor Michael Dunleavy. This declaration had nothing to do with the “briefingless” shift change that took place at Valley of the Moon Park on the previous Friday, but it was awfully convenient for that to have headlined the news for a couple of days first – right?
This is the perfect example of media manipulation known as “wagging the dog.”
Anchorage’s homeless problem isn’t a sudden crisis – it’s been a looming crisis for a long time. It was a primary focus of the last three mayoral elections and it was the number one topic during debates in the 2015 and 2018 mayoral elections.
The problem is the Municipality is stumped.
Anchorage has a tax cap, which stops the largely liberal majority on the Assembly and Mayor Berkowitz from raising taxes in any significant way. Without more cash in the bank, this administration is perplexed about how to have a significant impact on the problem.
In 2015 I spent a lot of time on an Anchorage mayoral campaign. I studied the homeless issue pretty extensively and I learned a lot about addiction. I talked to a large number of homeless folks in downtown and midtown Anchorage as to what they were looking for in terms of expanded services. The problem is that most face severe addiction problems, and in Anchorage, there just isn’t much help, even for those who are immediately ready.
I moved to Las Vegas in 2016. I came back and forth to Anchorage for holidays and to see family, but this summer is the first time I’ve spent a significant amount of time back in my hometown. I can see firsthand, from a home grown outsider’s perspective, how much worse the problem has gotten between 2015 and now.
There is no doubt the city has a homeless crisis, but it’s not sudden and has nothing to do with budget cuts that have not yet and likely will never take effect – it has to do with the lack of leadership by the Berkowitz administration on the issue of homelessness in Anchorage.
If the Dunleavy vetoes were to go into effect, it would have a drastic negative impact on the growing homeless crisis in Anchorage, there is no doubt. However, that doesn’t change the fact that this problem has been festering for years.
This administration has had years to have a significant impact this problem and instead of seeing progress, we are seeing a serious regression. The problem has gone from bad to completely out of hand as evidenced by the incident on July 19th at Valley of the Moon Park.
Anchorage is certainly in the midst of a crisis, but it’s going to take more than a declaration to fix it. It’s going to take leadership from City Hall.
Mike Dingman was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. He has worked in Alaska politics since the late 90s. He is now a ”homegrown outsider” keeping up on his home state from the Lower 48.