Four homeless people died in Anchorage last week, highlighting the city’s ongoing struggle to house a large homeless population just as winter returns, with more than 2 feet of snow falling in 48 hours.

These four bring the total number of people who have died while living outdoors in Anchorage to 49 this year, a record that easily eclipses the 24 people who died on the streets of the state’s largest city all year last, according to a count kept by the Anchorage. Daily News.

Last year, eleven of these deaths occurred during the winter months.

This week’s heavy snow covered the tents and vehicles that homeless people set up in makeshift camps across Anchorage when the city closed the mass shelter set up inside the sports arena of the city during the pandemic.

Even though the city has emptied at least one of these large camps, some people have decided to live outside this winter instead of seeking shelter.

Among the four recent deaths, a sleeping woman died Thursday after her makeshift shelter caught fire, likely caused by a heating source used to warm it.

The other three deaths were all men. One was found dead outside the door of a downtown gift shop where he often slept. Another died along a busy road near a Walmart and the third in a tent at an encampment near the city’s main library.

Given that there were beds available at shelters at the time of each person’s death, other factors may have played a role, including lack of transportation or access to health care, confusion over how getting a bed in a shelter or on a waiting list, or refusing to go to a shelter. , the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness said in a statement.

“Ensuring that people experiencing homelessness have access to health care providers, Narcan, fentanyl test strips, harm reduction counseling, and behavioral health treatments are the effective interventions needed to reduce deaths in outdoors,” the statement said.

“It makes you wonder what we could have done better to prevent this from happening,” Felix Rivera, an Anchorage Assembly member who chairs the Housing and Homelessness Committee, said of the four death.

The city has developed a short-term solution by adding beds in temporary shelters, but the only way to prevent more deaths is to build more housing, he said.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to make sure people aren’t dying out there, but if we don’t focus on a permanent solution, then a Band-Aid will be worse,” he said. “We’re going to run out of funds at some point to be able to continue doing this type of thing.”

Anchorage struggled to find a solution to house the homeless after the arena closed.

The city’s conservative mayor and liberal assembly could not agree on a new mass shelter, leaving Mayor Dave Bronson to suggest that the city hand out one-way plane tickets to the homeless to they are leaving town – an idea that has been widely criticized in and outside Alaska. .

That plan was never funded, leaving the city scrambling to find shelter in old hotels and apartment buildings. Late last month, Anchorage opened a new 150-bed congregate shelter in the city’s former waste transfer station administration building.

Alexis Johnson, the city’s homeless director, told The Associated Press at the time that the patchwork solution should provide enough beds for the city’s roughly 3,100 vulnerable residents.

There were 28 open beds at one facility Friday, but those would likely be filled before the end of the weekend, Rivera said.

The Bronson administration will present plans at an Assembly meeting next week to add 50 beds to the facility, which Rivera called a welcome move. He also expects the administration to eventually present plans for warming centers and additional shelter, if needed.

City buses did not run Thursday or Friday because of heavy snow, depriving the homeless of an easy place to warm up, Rivera said. It also kept many low-income people out of shelters or other social service programs.

During this week’s storm, temperatures haven’t been freezing, hovering around -1 degree C (30 degrees F), but that will change soon. The forecast calls for single-digit temperatures for next weekend.

This week’s storm dropped 17.2 inches of snow at the city’s official recording station, the National Weather Service office near the airport and shoreline. However, other parts of Anchorage, particularly those closer to the Chugach Mountains on the other side of town, recorded up to 30 inches.

Snowfall broke two daily records. The 9 inches Wednesday broke the record of 7.3 inches set in 1982, and the 8.2 inches that fell Thursday broke the record of 7.1 inches set in 1956, said Nicole Sprinkles, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The community of Girdwood, located about 35 miles south of Anchorage and home to a ski resort, peaks at 3 feet.

Anchorage’s total was in addition to the approximately 6 inches that fell Sunday.

The storm caused widespread power outages, forced schools to cancel classes or move to remote learning and led to highway closures.

In 2022, a storm in western Alaska caused the powerful waves of the Bering Sea to wash debris onto beaches and seaside communities.

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