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Associated Press, Published May 10 2010

Outdoor deaths climb among homeless in Anchorage

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Genevieve Wilson’s body was found inside a parked vehicle with a liquor bottle.

Thomas Michael Jenkins Jr. was found dead at a baseball field dugout, a liquor bottle tucked between his knees.

Seventeen-year-old Charlene Shugak’s body was found face-down in the snow at another ball field, two weeks after her family reported her missing.

The three were found within a week, among the latest of 21 outdoor deaths recorded in Anchorage during the past 12 months, with most victims being severely intoxicated. This year’s count alone already totals six, including a man found Thursday in a homeless camp littered with alcohol bottles. The city of 277,000 normally averages about 10 outdoor deaths annually, according to police, and the spike in numbers has alarmed homeless advocates and city officials.

It also has prompted calls for new solutions, including housing for street alcoholics, and invited comparisons to other cold-weather cities in the treatment of the hard-core homeless.

Minneapolis has nearly 100,000 more residents than Anchorage yet had only four outdoor deaths among the homeless in 2009, thanks largely to three housing projects for inebriates. Denver, with more than twice the population, had 13 outdoor deaths while following “housing first” initiatives and accepting inebriates into shelters.

In early January, Fargo’s First United Methodist closed its Wesley Center, which hosted one of the few nighttime drop-in centers that would accept homeless people who were intoxicated. Now the Gladys Ray Shelter is Fargo’s only “wet shelter.” The shelter at 1519 1st Ave. S. provides accommodations for 25 men and 10 women per night.

The North Dakota Coalition for the Homeless estimates 7,100 North Dakotans will be homelesss this year. A 2007 report by the Wilder Foundation found that 43 percent of homeless people interviewed in Fargo said they were alcoholics or chemically dependent.

Anchorage officials recently formed a task force to tackle the problem of homeless inebriates, believed to number about 400 among an estimated total homeless population of 3,000. The city also hired its first full-time public coordinator for homeless issues, Darrell Hess, who doesn’t see the increased deaths as epidemic but certainly as creating greater awareness of the problem.

As it is, homeless alcoholics have few options if they can’t remain sober enough to stay in the city’s two major shelters or work on their addictions through detox or treatment programs. There is the sleep-off station, where they can stay only long enough to sober up, or the jail.

Another issue is the city’s dispersal raids on homeless encampments with as little as 12 hours notice. That is the subject of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska.

Most of the deaths in the past year occurred in spring or fall, when the weather can be deceptively pleasant during the day but plunge below freezing at night. Thirteen of those who died are Alaska Natives, who suffer disproportionately from alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths.

One proposal being debated is turning a hotel, the Red Roof Inn, in Anchorage’s Fairview district into a housing complex that would take in those still drinking or drunk.


Forum reporter Tammy Swift contributed to this story