Record rainfall, bears and French toast at Anchorage’s new city-sanctioned homeless encampment

A network of mutual aid organizers provides meals and supplies for people experiencing homelessness.

On a rainy late-July morning, a line formed around a tent sheltering a makeshift kitchen that held two fold-out tables, two camp stoves and plates of steaming French toast covered in butter, syrup and homemade wild berry sauce. The man behind the sizzling cast iron skillets was Duke Russell, an Anchorage artist who started coming to Centennial Campground in early July to prepare and distribute meals for the people residing at the campground. Usually, the campground is filled with Alaskans and other tourists, who park their RVs for $25 a night during the busy summer season. Recently, however, it’s become an encampment for people experiencing homelessness and in need of a place to stay. 


Gina Callahan, who has lived in Alaska since 1980, was among those who visited Russell’s tent for breakfast. She said she hadn’t eaten in two days and was having trouble eating the pork that Bean’s Cafe was serving. Russell handed her a plate and a cup of orange juice. “It’s nice to have you guys make this for us,” she told Russell.

Anchorage artist Duke Russell serves campers a rice and bean dish from the back of his moped. As a teen, Russell experienced homelessness. “I don’t want that for anyone,” he said.

After the Federal Emergency Management Agency reduced its reimbursement of Anchorage’s largest homeless shelter by 10%, Mayor Dave Bronson abruptly — and controversially — closed the shelter on July 1. The city then bused 60 of the shelter’s residents to Centennial, a city-run campground on the outskirts of town. Other people experiencing homelessness have since made their way to Centennial after learning that the city had sanctioned the encampment.

Initially, the city said that the campground was being temporarily repurposed and would be used for people experiencing homelessness for just a few weeks. However, Anchorage officials now plan to keep the campground available through September. Some city assembly members, homeless advocates, Anchorage community groups and state legislators have described the move as a humanitarian crisis, as Centennial’s residents were forced to camp outside during one of the city’s wettest Julys on record. The nearest grocery store is about two miles away, making it difficult for campground residents to get groceries or supplies. It is even harder to send or receive mail; the nearest post office is almost five miles down the road. Aside from RV hookups, there is nowhere to charge phones or computers, making it difficult for campground residents to coordinate with employers or reach job and housing services.

The nearest grocery store is about two miles away, making it difficult for campground residents to get groceries or supplies. 

Within a week of their arrival at Centennial, a patchwork of charitable groups, volunteers and mutual aid organizations stepped up to support the residents. For Russell, the situation hit home: As a teen living in Anchorage, he had experienced homelessness. “I lived in various places my dad found for me,” he said. “I didn’t like it. I don’t want that for anyone.” 

Arciniega Street Productions, an Anchorage queer- and Latinx-owned production company, organized an emergency mutual aid meetup July 20 at a local bar. That night, more than 100 volunteers packaged and delivered over a thousand sandwiches and snack packs, as well as personal hygiene bags filled with menstrual products, socks, baby wipes and other essentials.

Lara Creighton keeps three cats with her at Centennial Park Campground on July 18, 2022. She tries to help other campers, she said. "Everybody pretty much does," she said.

The volunteers also donated dozens of tents, tarps, dog food and other outdoor supplies, said event organizer Kendra Arciniega, Arciniega Street’s owner. She and her wife, Mercedes, started making trips to the campground to hand out coffee, toilet paper, umbrellas and menstrual products after learning that the municipality “dumped our most vulnerable community members at Centennial Park to fend for themselves,” she said. “After seeing the conditions firsthand – and witnessing the conditions worsen with every visit – we knew we needed to involve more people and activate the community to quickly help get our neighbors some food and supplies.” 

It wasn’t until July 19, nearly three weeks after the city first moved people to the campground, that officials enlisted the Salvation Army’s help to manage residents’ cases, handle donations and provide meals. The Salvation Army has transitioned 34 people into housing, helped reunite two campers with family outside the city, and placed 10 people into a workforce development program. But in the process, it also ended Russell’s mutual aid efforts. On July 26, Russell said that a Salvation Army volunteer and a city employee asked him to leave. “My food mission here is done,” Russell said in a video he posted to Instagram live. “I feel a little defeated. I know they got a justified reason about the food and the responsibility of somebody getting sick from something I made. I think it’s kind of an excuse.”

Natalie Clendenin, the communications manager for the Salvation Army’s Alaska Division, said she wasn’t onsite during the interaction with Duke Russell and could not speak specifically to what happened. She did, however, note that the Salvation Army is welcoming people who want to provide food.

“We are just asking that it be done in a coordinated manner and done with standard food safety in mind,” she said. “We welcome providers who are wanting to help and just ask that they are doing so responsibly, but again we are not enforcing any rules as we are not an enforcement body.”

Campground residents say living conditions are still poor, and more help is needed.

 “I could barely sleep last night, I was so cold. I can’t even think straight.”

Tents are set up near a dirt lot at Centennial Park Campground. Many residents’ tents have flooded due to the rain.

Gina Callahan says the experience has been stressful; her tent flooded, and like others at Centennial, she needs the city’s help to find housing. But Callahan said it’s extremely difficult for couples to find housing; there are resources for single men and single women, but not for people who are together. She and her boyfriend were sober before arriving at the campground, but they have started drinking again. “There is nothing really else to do around here,” she said. 

Another camper, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her housing voucher, said that the night she and her grandchild arrived at the campground, they heard gunfire near their tent. They later learned that an Anchorage police officer and a felony suspect had been hospitalized after a late-night shootout at the campground.

Plus, the weather during their first few days at the campground was “like a monsoon,” she said. Their jackets were soaked through and their tent flooded the first night. Plug-in space heaters would certainly help, she said. “I could barely sleep last night, I was so cold. I can’t even think straight.”

Another ongoing issue is the presence of black bears at the campground. The campground abuts nearby wilderness areas, and officials have so far had to kill five bears that have wandered into the campground and entered people’s tents. Any bear that enters a tent looking for food or garbage can become a hazard and must be euthanized, said David Battle, the area biologist for Alaska Fish and Game’s Anchorage office.

Bears have always been an issue at Centennial, but in the past, campground staff could evict campers for breaking bear-safety rules involving trash and food storage. Since the campground has been repurposed and its fees waived, staff are unable to do so today. Large metal bear-safe trash bins have been ordered for the campground, Battle said, and the city has provided campers with hundreds of personal bear-resistant storage boxes. Meanwhile, campground staff are doing the best they can to keep food and trash stored properly.

Sapphire Tyone sits under a tarp on a rainy morning at Centennial Park Campground.

More permanent shelter could be on the way for Centennial’s residents. At a July 26 Anchorage Assembly meeting, the city earmarked more than $7 million for shelter and housing initiatives. The money will be used to renovate emergency shelters and 60 permanent housing units for people experiencing homelessness, as well as for additional outreach and transportation for homeless shelters. The city also approved a plan to use a $3.4 million grant from the American Rescue Plan Act to purchase a downtown building, which will provide up to 130 new housing units.

In the meantime, volunteers are still finding ways to help however they can. Arciniega said she will continue distributing the care packages they assembled last month. And Russell is seeking approval to restart his food service tent. Until that happens, he's been coming to Centennial Campground with his paints, an easel and a coffee pot. “Once I found these folks and their stories, it was super compelling,” Russell said. “I want to know how this story plays out.”

Victoria Petersen is a freelance journalist living in Anchorage, Alaska. Previously, she was a reporting fellow at The New York Times and a High Country News intern.

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