Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Homeless In Juneau, Alaska

“Get down off there!” - the shout came loud and emphatic.

*Startled, the homeless guy looked around.  A large policeman stood a few yards downhill with one hand on the butt of his Glock pistol and the other on his nightstick and with a seriously stern look on his face.

“What for?  What did I do?”  asked the frightened guy.

“You’re trespassing.  That’s what.  Now get your ass down here!” bellowed the stern cop.

Ralph, was shaken and visibly nervous, but nodded quickly and stumbled the ten yards or so down the steep slope to the level ground the cop stood on.

“What are you doing up there?” demanded the cop.

“Nothing.” said Ralph.

“You living up there?  Got a camp or something?” asked the rather large and intimidating policeman staring right at Ralph.

Ralph looked at his feet and said nothing.

“What about it?” demanded the policeman.  “I’ll run your ass in for trespass if you don’t speak up.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Ralph said.  “I got a sort of campsite up on the slope up there in the trees.  Until I can find a place to stay or something that is.”

“Well, you ain’t any more.” said the cop.  “All you guys camped out up there are on private property, and you’re trespassing.  We got complaints from the property owner and you’re outta there.  Right now.  Now, get gone while I’m still in a good mood!”

Ralph looked at the cop for a moment.  “Can I get my stuff?” he asked.  “I still got all my stuff up there.”

“Read my lips!” said the cop.  “I said, ‘Get gone!’ and I damned well mean it, before I run your ass over to detention.  And I mean right damned now!”

Ralph  turned and walked quickly away, before the cop had a chance to change his mind.  He’d had runs in with cops before.  Several times.  Maybe he’d try to sneak back and get his stuff after dark.  Before it got too cold.  He needed that sleeping bag.  He wondered where he could hang out until it got dark.

The homeless grey bearded man with the sad look in his eyes had been around some in his sixty years or so.  Now, he was in Juneau, Alaska in December, with no place to stay and no money.  No place to get out of the cold and it was sure to be colder tonight.  Ralph came to Juneau fifteen years ago to work on a fishing boat.  At first it was great.  He loved the work, and being on the water was wonderful.  So clean and elemental.  The work was hard but paid well when there was plenty of fish.  He got paid a share of the boat’s catch, and the guys were great.  Donny, the boat’s owner and business manager seemed to care a lot about the guys who did most of the work, two others besides Ralph.  It was almost like a family.  A family Ralph never had since leaving home at sixteen.

With no father at home and with his mother struggling to put food on the table, and three more younger kids to feed,  Ralph thought the best thing was to move on along to find some work and send money back as he could.  He lied about his age and got some minimum wage jobs to get by.  He couldn’t give much to his mom, but he tried.  He survived.  When he turned seventeen he’d joined the army - and was able to get an allotment to help support his mom and the other three kids.  Six months after joining up Ralph found himself slogging through the jungles of Vietnam as an infantry grunt on patrol in the boonies.

He hated the army and was scared to death every day in Vietnam - but the money was actually pretty good, especially with the combat pay thrown in.  And, when his year in Vietnam was up he asked his first sergeant to sign him up for another year ‘in country’, and then a year later, a third even.  The third was the bugaboo.  Halfway through was when Ralph got his ass shot off.  Or more correctly, blown off.  That was when somebody on his patrol set off a mine which killed two other men and loaded Ralph’s ass and back up with a ton of shrapnel.  But, it was his ticket home.

Two months in the hospital and some stateside time and then Ralph got his release from the army.  He hung around his mom’s for a week or so but soon headed out.  At first he seemed to do pretty well.  He got some pretty good work in construction, and then got a job with the power line folks as a lineman.  Hard work, but good money.  He got married even, but that didn’t last.  His wife said he was ’too into himself’ and left with a used car salesman.  After that Ralph just didn’t care much any more.  He quit the power company and banged around doing whatever work he could find.  Then he got in trouble with the law.

It was silly and stupid, really.  Ralph was hanging around with a guy from work who invited him over for a wiener roast and a few beers.  But it was more than a few beers.  This guy, who weighed about 300 pounds, hung out with a woman who was a deaf mute - and both of them drank like fishes.  Before long they were drunk as skunks, except for Ralph, who only had three or four beers himself.  But, Ralph was fascinated by the deaf mute woman and her strange sounding vocalizations, and somehow his interest got misconstrued by his fat friend who knocked him down.  What made it bad was the fat guy then just laid on top of Ralph and rolled around.  He wouldn’t get off and Ralph couldn’t get out from under.  He panicked, but managed to get his tiny pen knife hanging on his belt opened.  Pinching about a quarter inch of the blade exposed in his hand, he jabbed his huge friend in the side and belly until the guy finally screamed and rolled away.  But, then the deaf mute woman viciously attacked Ralph with the barbecue spatula.  He had no choice but to cut and run.

That might have been that, but Ralph worried about the the knife.  He thought it would be considered a ‘deadly weapon’, so he pitched it in the first trash bin he came to.  As it turned out, that was the very worst thing he could have done.

The fat guy swore out a complaint and Ralph’s arrest soon followed.  He was appointed a public defender since he had no money, and his lawyer said it was a legitimate self-defense, except for that discarded pen knife.  That made things into obstruction of justice and destruction of evidence.  Ralph got eighteen months in the slammer.  And, he did every day of it.  They said he had a bad attitude.  They were right.  He was pissed at the world and got in countless fights in jail.  After his release he did another two year’s probation, and reported to a court appointed probation officer once a week.  It was thoroughly humiliating and a real pisser.

After that Ralph couldn’t keep his mind on anything.  He had nightmares about Vietnam almost every night, often waking up in terror, reliving the wet heat and the jungle patrols, and the day he got his ass shot off.  He went to the Veterans Administration for treatment and was told he had an obvious case of PTSD - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  They gave him pills and advice, but the bureaucracy bothered him, so he quit going.

He only occasionally had contact with the rest of his family, maybe once in every two years or so.  His mom died and his siblings went God knows where.  Ralph was depressed most of the time feeling himself a failure and a loser.  The fishing job in Alaska became his salvation.  With that, for several years Ralph was pretty happy.  He got a little apartment with another guy and things were cool.

Then Donny, the boat’s owner died.  It was sudden.  The guy just keeled over at the supper table one night having liver and onions with his wife.  That was that.  The job ended, and the boat got sold.  Ralph was too old to get another fishing job, so he just took whatever pickup jobs he could find.  It wasn’t enough.  He gave up the apartment and became just another homeless guy in Juneau, Alaska.

The problem with Juneau, is, if you don’t have any money you can’t leave.  It’s not like other places where you can just walk away or hitchhike maybe.  The only way in and out of Juneau is by air or by water - ferry.  Both cost money.  Lot’s of money in fact.  Ralph didn’t want to leave anyway.  Juneau was the only home he knew - even if he didn’t have an actual home.

Even without a place to live a person can get by in Juneau.  A  fair number of people had semi-permanent camps in the woods overlooking downtown.  Many were bums and just plain drunks, but quite a few were like Ralph - just unfortunate, down-on-their-luck guys who couldn’t make enough money to live in a house or apartment, but could make enough to eat and live in a camp in the woods.  If they were let alone that is.  If asked, they all said that’s the way they wanted to live.  “Just leave us alone.” was the motto.

But, like almost every other place in America, the powers-that-are in Juneau would not abide the homeless in their city.  It just ‘looked bad’ they said.  “They drive away business” was another frequently heard complaint, and, “they’re all just a bunch of alcoholics and thieves” was often heard.  All that was true, to one degree or another.  But, instead of applying some imagination and a bit of money and effort to fix the problem, the powers that be chose instead to attack it with a full frontal assault by law and fiat.  Simply put, it became illegal to be down-on-your-luck and homeless and exist in Juneau, Alaska.

If you've never been there,  Juneau, Alaska is a beautiful place, summer or winter.  A salt-water channel crowds the narrow strip of level land the city sits upon smack dab against an almost vertical wall of 4000 foot mountains virtually overhanging the city’s downtown area.  Tall Hemlock and Sitka Spruce evergreens almost stick their limbs into the downtown office buildings and shops.  Yards away from the city center, bears, mountain goat and deer play.  The bears enter town at night and become problems raiding unsecured garbage cans.  In fact, there is a city ordinance against bears too - that is, against persons leaving unsecured garbage for them to raid.  A very sensible ordinance it is too.

Juneau began as a mining town, based on gold.  Huge gold mines once existed virtually downtown, and their hundreds of miles of tunnels still lace the mountains nearby.  Mines require vast amounts of electricity to operate, and these built their own dams and hydro-electric plants.  Some of the electricity was also sold to the residents and businesses of Juneau.  In the early 1900’s a private company was formed to buy electricity from the combined mine dams and resell it.  That was the birth of “AEL&P” - Alaska 
Electric Light and Power company.  In 1972, AEL&P purchased all the dams and associated electrical generating properties from what remained of the mining companies, the last of which had ceased production early in WWII.

However, since 1973 most of AEL&P’s power has come from the Snettisham project,  built at US government expense, and later purchased by the State of Alaska.  The state made a contract with AEL&P allowing the company to sell electricity generated at Snettisham. In exchange, AEL&P must maintain the plant and pay off 35-year bonds issued by the state when it bought Snettisham from the federal government. That includes the 44 miles of towers and transmission lines used to deliver the power.   AEL&P has an option to purchase the Snettisham project but has declined to do so.  Why should this privately owned company so so, when it was virtually given to them with no investment on their part?

Yet, this is the very same company which failed to provide recommended avalanche protection for the transmission towers.   Seven towers were wrecked by an avalanche in early 2008.  AEL&P simply raised electrical rates almost 500% to cover their costs of repairs - and then some I would guess.  One of the repaired towers was damaged AGAIN in early 2009 by yet another avalanche - still not provided with protection.

Why am I giving you this information about a privately owned power company in far off Juneau, Alaska, and how is that pertinent to the homeless Ralph’s predicament?  Very simple really, this private company owns the land where the homeless, Ralph among them, made their camps in Juneau.  And, this is the same privately owned company which demanded the police evict all homeless persons from their camps.  That was the extent of their ‘homeless solution’.

When Ralph sneaked back to the campsite after dark, he discovered all his possessions, along with everyone else’s, had been gathered up and destroyed by the Juneau Police Department, enforcers for the powers that be.  Ralph did not sleep that night.  He was too cold and he was too busy walking around trying to stay warm.   But I’ll bet Joe Corbus, the majority stockholder of AEL&P didn’t have a problem.  I imagine he slept warm, comfortable and unbothered in his million dollar mansion down on the shore of Gastineau Channel, in Juneau, Alaska.  And, I’ll bet too, he dropped at least a dollar bill in the collection plate at his church the following Sunday as well.

 *’Ralph’ is a fictitious character, based on several different characters I know in Juneau, Alaska.  But, AEL&P and Joe Corbus are all too real.


  1. Anonymous6:29 PM

    I have read your article and feel for your (and others) situation, now three years ago ... have things looked up? I googled to your article, looking for some way to "chill out" without spending money ... there does not seem to be much of anything without money ... hoping to change this ... all the best to you ... moira

    1. Thanks for your comment. That is a blog article from three years ago, and representative of Juneau, Alaska's reaction to the homeless there. I no longer live in Juneau but sadly, juneau's is a common community reaction to homeless and disadvantaged people almost everywhere in the US. Basically, civic authorities (and comfortable people) resent disadvantaged persons no matter their reason. The big trouble with Juneau is that it is an expensive place to leave FROM. All travel to and from Juneau is by boat (ferry) or air, both of which cost money. There are no surface road connections to the city.

      Some people who become disadvantaged after arriving in Juneau can not leave, and are forced to get by any way they can. That usually means living in the woods which reach right up to the edge of the city. Yes, there is a soup kitchen so they are not in danger of actual starvation, but there is no place for them to live. The homeless shelter has a two week limit, and after 14 days they must move elsewhere, which usually means the woods. They then are punished for 'living while broke' so to speak. My blog article addresses this point.

      And, to rub salt in the wounds, much of the undeveloped property adjacent to the city is owned by the (private, essentially family owned) electrical company (Alaska Electric Light and Power), which has a reputation for being hostile to people without means. Periodically, the company demands police authorities sweep the homeless from their property, which they do aggressively. It seems that many people who do have means resent those who do not, blaming them for their disadvantaged situation whether it is their fault or not - and which also seems to be a common theme in right-wing dogma.

      It is a sad commentary on our nation today, focused on and dominated by money, and seemingly more so every day. And while we have many advantages as a nation, we are dismally falling behind other developed countries in compassion and care for ALL of our citizens.


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