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Alaska's Hard-Core Homeless Won't Come In From the Cold

Many choose to remain outdoors rather than follow rules imposed by shelters. Some say staying warm takes some ingenuity.

March 14, 2004|Rachel D'Oro | Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE — Ron Feldhouse draws the line at 45 degrees below zero. Then it's time to sleep indoors. Otherwise, he camps in the woods outside Fairbanks, where winter temperatures can hover around minus-20 or colder for weeks at a stretch.

Dealing with extreme elements is the norm for Feldhouse, 47, and other hard-core homeless Alaskans who live outdoors in weather so cold it can be easily fatal for the unprepared.

"It's a learned art," Feldhouse said. "After a while, you just start getting used to it."

Many of Alaska's indigent -- a population that's difficult to measure -- cope by drifting from couch to couch or sleeping in motels, cars, boats and homeless shelters in the larger cities.

But a small number say they prefer dealing with the bitter cold to following rules at shelters, which offer limited stays, forbid the use of alcohol and drugs, and impose strict curfews.

Ed Heeckt arrived a year ago from Arlington, Wash., settling in Juneau, where he got a short-lived job processing fish for $8.50 an hour. He stayed at the Glory Hole, a local shelter, for a week, but hated the cramped quarters.

Unable to afford even the cheapest rent, he set up a hand-me-down tent among spruce and alder trees at an abandoned mining site outside downtown Juneau. In the summer, he has a perfect view of the cruise ships that frequent the town.

"I can't handle the snoring and the smelly feet of a shelter," said Heeckt, 36. "But I'm very independent and I can survive anywhere."

Practiced campers say it's not that hard to stay warm in a state on the far northern latitudes -- it just takes a little ingenuity. They dig caves out of snow mounds, pack snow high around outer tent walls for insulation, and line inner edges with clothing. Some burrow in trash bins or curl up in doorways.

On cold nights, Heeckt burns a can of gel fuel inside his tent for 10 minutes to get it "nice and warm." He puts on layers of shirts and pants, a couple pairs of socks and a hat before diving into his mummy-style sleeping bag, which is sandwiched between a plastic foam pad and a pile of blankets.

Feldhouse, who has been without a permanent home in Alaska and North Dakota for 25 years, is a regular at several Fairbanks coffee shops. When temperatures plummet, he can be found inside long past midnight, nursing a cup of coffee before heading to camp on his bicycle.

"People ask me, 'Don't you get cold?' No, not really, only when I get out of my sleeping bag," he said. "I just don't like being tied down. Living like this lightens the load. I don't have to answer to anybody, don't have bills to pay."

In Anchorage, a city of 274,000, agencies that work with the homeless estimate between 8,000 and 10,000 people find themselves without a permanent roof at least temporarily in any given year. Only a fraction end up at one of the 35 makeshift camps well-hidden around the city and its suburbs. The number of camps fluctuates as authorities make periodic sweeps.

Many campers are Alaska Natives, said Norma Carter, social services director of Bean's Cafe, a day shelter and soup kitchen. She knows a 92-year-old man who grudgingly moved into a subsidized assisted-living home three months ago. The man, who grew up in a western Alaska village, told Carter that he misses his old life.

"I think it's a cultural thing in some cases, where people are accustomed to taking a boat up the river and sleeping on the bank, under the stars," she said. "For others, it's just not having money, not wanting to be found. There are different reasons why people camp."

It's a choice for Ellamae Clark, who has camped in Anchorage for nine years. She shares a site with her boyfriend and six other men. They sleep four to a tent, which goes a long way to staying warm. Clark said they all drink heavily, so watching each other is crucial to avoid freezing to death. Clark, 43, said she rarely feels the cold, having grown up in the village of Selawik above the Arctic Circle.

"I even sleep in shorts," she said. "For me, it's an easy life. Having a camp is harder in the summer because you have to watch out for teenagers who want to vandalize it. In the summer, it gets too hot."

Chronic homelessness is almost unheard of in rural villages. That applies even to the southwestern hub of Bethel -- a largely Yupik Eskimo town of 5,900 that serves as the regional center for 56 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. "Yupik society is pretty generous," said Bob Herron, city manager. "If your second cousin is in need, society out here will take care of them. You can pretty much get help."

Or move out.

Most of Alaska's homeless wind up in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and other urban areas, where shelters, public transportation, job opportunities and low-income medical care are available.

Leaving the state, however, is not an option for those who can't scrape together the price of a one-way ticket to a warmer place. But many wouldn't want to live anywhere else, said Jetta Whittaker, director of the Juneau shelter.

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