Homeless in Alaska

“Anchorage has a homeless problem too, but in the woods, not on skid row” By ZACHARIAH HUGHES

Behind a baseball field, past purple fireweed flowers and wild raspberry brambles, Christiann Perry reflected on what brought her and a handful of others to messy encampments of tarps, tents and piles of clothing and garbage in a patch of woods just off a busy bike trail.

“We were doing great till I fell,” Perry said of her life before a head injury that set off a chain of complicated medical issues. She fell into deep drug addiction, and her four children were taken away by child welfare officials. She and her husband bounced from stable housing to a slum motel.

Then the couple ended up here, one of dozens of encampments scattered across Anchorage’s green belt. The camps are among the most stubborn and vexing manifestations of the city’s challenges with homelessness, affordable housing and social services.

“This is skid row in Alaska,” Perry said.

Unlike other metro areas where the homeless congregate on streets and under bridges, Anchorage is a vast municipality of 1,961 square miles crisscrossed with recreational trails abutted by woods, parks and expansive stretches of nature — an area slightly smaller than Delaware.

The topography lends itself to a rugged form of homelessness that locals call “camping.”

For people like Perry, the woods provide refuge. She’s been trying to get clean. She has weaned herself down to a single $20 dose of heroin a day, mostly, she said, to keep from getting sick from withdrawal. A black abscess mars the back of one hand, where she used to inject, and needle marks dot her wrists.

“I don’t like to get high, I just get well,” she said. Getting too drowsy or passing out is risky. That’s when other people come into their camp to steal drugs, supplies or equipment.

Christiann Perry lives in a homeless camp off the Chester Creek Trail in Anchorage. “This is skid row in Alaska,” she says. (Ash Adams / For The Times)

“The proliferation and the magnitude of the camps that we’ve seen develop in the last three to five years has just been astounding to us,” said Russ Webb, 68, who lives in the upscale South Addition neighborhood, not far from some of the trails most densely populated with homeless campers.

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