Walking Among the Homeless

pic0052By Karla Fetrow

Anchorage is a hostile city.  Underneath the glitz of visitor friendly store fronts, the occasional log cabin or early settler’s building left for quaint charm, the model homes and neighborhoods, is a diocese of order comprised only to protect real estate, big business and capital enterprise. It’s exhortations are manifold.  Beginning with a squabbling over the sensibility advertising design for private shops, diners or taverns; they must all must be in keeping with city design; and continuing up to the removal of trailer parks and the paving over of early pioneer homes to create transit for more ambitious developers, Anchorage uproots its lower income classes and sends them spilling into the streets.

It has made no preparations, offered no alternative living conditions for its displaced population.  Even though the waiting period is long; up to four years after applying before finding a niche in low cost housing, our administrators tell us they are doing the best they can.  The best they can, is to cultivate the city like a garden, tearing out humble abodes and deteriorating apartments like weeds to grow their middle class flowers.  It doesn’t matter that over twenty percent of the population can’t afford the upgraded housing, and of the ones who do move into it, another twenty percent do so through secondary sub-leasing so as to help pay the rent.  The important thing is that Anchorage should look pretty, affluent, color and design co-ordinated, even if it plunges half its population into poverty.

Its war on poverty is relentless.  Two years ago, the Municipality of Anchorage evicted a seventy-six year old man from his home of over fifty years for failure to pay his taxes.  The man was an early homesteader to Alaska whose business thrived until about ten years ago when he was barely able to keep up with competition, cost of living and expenses, let alone inflated taxes.  The City of Anchorage did not care that his life blood had created his home, that his sweat and hard work had laid the foundation for the town we all know and don’t love so well.  It needed his property to expand a roadway into a new, corporate paid for shopping mall.  Not even the offers of the citizens to pay his back taxes moved them.  What Anchorage must have, it takes.

Another disturbing trend has developed to swell the ranks of the Anchorage homeless.  The northern villages, long dependent of the fishing industry for source of income, cannot compete with the large commercial fleets.  Returns of migrating fish have been poor in recent years, igniting a conflict between subsistence fishermen and commercialized industry.  Many of the young people within the villages feel they have no choice but to go to Anchorage and look for jobs.  With fourteen percent unemployment and construction nearly at a dead halt, those jobs are hard to find.

In many ways, these policies are no different than in any other American city.  With foreclosures suspended over the heads of debt-ridden home-owners for mortgages they can’t afford to pay, the lower income classes in America’s big cities are also moving into homelessness.  Did the institutions that deemed these debtors incapable of paying for their expensive homes, offer something more modest at a reduced rate?  Did the city assemblies prepare for the influx of homeless when they knew inflation had reached its peak?  The appearance of fine homes was more important than healthy families.

In the giant cities, the fate of the dispossessed is not easily defined.  Among millions, packed into high-rise buildings, crowded into squatting tenements, lurking in an underworld twisted with dark alleys and forgotten patches of crumbling shelters, the homeless are a blurred part of every day transit; begging for coins on a street corner, huddled under awnings to escape the rain, sleeping on park benches, hoping nobody disturbs them.  We see them but they don’t register.  They are a part of the grime and the seediness we hope to erase from mind before arriving at the next corner of our destination.

In Anchorage, each homeless person is clearly visible.  Driving down the wide avenues in early morning, there is a man who has made his cardboard bed on the steps of the welfare assistance building.  A small group of people stand in a circle nearby, waiting for the doors to open.  Further down the street, a mother and child take up position in front of a grocery store, asking furtively for a few coins from the customers, while keeping a close eye out for the clerks to chase them away.  Begging has become so epidemic, last year the municipality passed an ordinance making it illegal to give money to beggars.  We give anyway.  At a stoplight, a man flashes a cardboard sign at us that says, “will work for food.”  We have no food with us, but give him three dollars.

We’ve come into town to pick up Jacob, who said he would be waiting in the Fred Myers parking lot.  Jacob is twenty-three.  He left his home in Dillingham five years ago to find work in Anchorage.  He is a friendly young man with few job skills.  He has worked as a bus boy, a package mover, in fast food places and pushing brooms for periods of six months at a time.  In the spaces between jobs, that were never more than a few weeks at a time, he used whatever savings, and sold whatever belongings he had accumulated to tide him through until he found more work.  He never made enough income to do more than share an apartment.  In the summer, he camped out in the woods to save money.

He has an interview with a restaurant scheduled for the next day.  Jacob is excited.  If he lands the job, it will start him out at the highest pay he has yet received.  However, the interview is fifteen miles away from where he is camped.  He wants to spend the night in our apartment, take a shower and catch the down town bus.

When we see Jacob, he is empty handed.  He had not wanted to be seen in public with a back pack and sleeping bag for fear he’d be questioned for vagrancy.  He apologizes.  We’re understanding.  In order to keep our rendevous, Jacob had risen at five in the morning and walked six miles.  He gives us instructions that take us out of town and down a road that is little more than an over-grown and forgotten tank trail.  At a point where the car could go no further, we get out and walk about five hundred feet into the brush.  Here was the dumping place for old autos nobody wanted to pay the junk yards to haul off.  They yawned crazily on one side, or slumped dejectedly into the ground, splattered with rust, their windows cracked or broken.  In several locations were old oil drums, opened at the top and used as burn barrels.  The smoke of late night fires still drifted in the air.

The company that strayed around this lingering warmth or settled on old car seats pulled from the abandoned vehicles while sipping coffee, were young, old, weather beaten, ruddy, shabby or carefully dressed into acceptable work clothes.  A couple of middle aged women greet Jacob when we appear.  “Are you leaving us, dear?  Are you taking a step up the ladder.”

“Maybe,” he says.  We’ll see how it turns out.”

“Well, I wish you every bit of luck.  You’re a fine looking boy.  They’ll hire you.  Just remember to brush your teeth.”

They laugh.  Many of the middle aged crew of teeth missing.  They weren’t able to go to a dentist and the painful reminders appear in their smiles.  “Yep,” says one old guy whose hand shakes a little and whose voice quivers.  “You got a better chance than some of us.  We got washed up.  Down the river.  Like ole Charlie.  They never did decide what killed him.”

“Natural causes.  The newspapers say it was natural causes.”

“At forty-eight?  It don’t seem so natural somehow, but maybe the booze ate him.  He never was quite right in the head after he lost his Slope job.”  The Slope is what they call the area near Prudhoe Bay where one of the main oil installations is located that feed the pipeline.

“He got over-qualified.  That’s what I hear.  It don’t do to know too much these days.”

“Nope. Jacob’s smart.  He’s going after a cook’s job.  People gotta eat.  It’s stable work.”

“They blame booze on all the homeless deaths,” jeers one of the women.  “What about the guy who was found with bruises all over his body and his head half bashed in?  Foul play might be involved.  What do you think?  He beat himself up while downing a bottle of tequila?”

Twenty homeless deaths have been discovered in the last three months, during one of the mildest summers on record.  The Municipality of Anchorage can’t explain them, but has hired three experts for a grand total of seventy-five thousand a year, to study the causes of homelessness.  This, at least, creates three employees that might otherwise be looking for work.

We talk about the homeless situation on the way back to the apartment.  Many of the people within the camp will stay with friends for the winter, but some will remain where they are.  “They don’t want to be a burden,” says Jacob.  “Some of them are just too old to land good jobs anymore.  Companies don’t want to hire them because they say it’s an insurance risk, but  Social Security says they are still able to work so they can’t collect adult assistance. The shelters will fill with families and women first, which is as it should be.  They aren’t strong enough to make it through the winter.”

Making it through the winter is on everyone’s mind.  The cost of electricity and natural gas has doubled during the summer, making it the third rate increase in five years, although wages have remained the same.  Last winter, people had whittled down their consumption to the minimum, closing off rooms in their houses during the most severe weather; sub-zero temperatures that lasted for weeks at a time, minimizing their road trips, cutting cable television and relying only on local channels, buying fewer and more modest gifts during the holidays, eating all their harvested foods instead of donating a portion to charity.  This year, nothing was being wasted.  Even the fireweed was being gathered to make honey.

An independent, charitable organization had purchased a building several years ago to furnish a new homeless shelter.  However, even before it could open its doors, a near by residential area objected.  They had invested good money into their neighborhood and they were afraid the value of their homes would depreciate with a homeless shelter located so close.  The issue was still being debated in court.  Meanwhile, the organization has invested a million and a half dollars for a building full of empty rooms, beds, showers, linen and kitchen and the homeless remain huddled in the woods, surrounded by burn barrels and rusted cars.

I can’t help but wonder at this enormous irony that has seized us.  Anchorage was built a hundred years ago out of army tents and tin lizzies; stoves made out of oil barrels, with a trap door for wood and a smokestack at one end.  They survived their frigid winters and built cabins, which became houses and stores, then tall, slick buildings, paved roads and sidewalks.  It has forgotten its heritage in the glow of its oil rich economy that isn’t so healthy anymore.

A home isn’t a fictitious property value; it’s the amount of life you put into it.  Lifeless houses on miles of highway, speculations of a dream too large to hold.  It is said that a team is only as strong as its weakest link.  So is a neighborhood.  By pushing away the weakest among us, by sending them into the brush, the alleys, the darkness, we have weakened ourselves.  We have made ourselves more vulnerable to judgment calls that value us for what we own instead of who we are.

Anchorage is a microscopic sample of any American city.  It has an International population of Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Hispanics, Russians, and a handful of Europeans.  It has a scattered population of native and indigenous people, along with a few elderly pioneers.  The dominant population is the “New Alaskan”, people from the Continental United States who have been in Alaska no more than two years and who generally stay no longer than five.  They fill the ranks of military families and career people assigned to corporate jobs.  They influence Anchorage politics, without ever remaining long enough to feel the effects.  Most of them never leave the Municipality of Anchorage until they leave the state and have no idea there is a whole separate Alaska, a separate culture, just beyond their doorstep.  The policies and behavior of the administrative body of Anchorage is typical of cities everywhere.  The difference is the size; five hundred thousand people spread out on a hundred square miles of land, too sparse to hide the glaring flaws within its design, the crushing effects of poverty among the pampered, ostentatious cult of real estate marketing.  The irony is almost too bitter.  A population so small, settled into thousands of acres of wilderness, and we can’t find the heart to so much as lend canvas army tents and tin lizzies to the homeless.