For Al Jazeera America: For homeless campers in Anchorage, independence can be deadly

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Few witness more closely the brutal deterioration that comes with a life of drinking in winter homeless camps than Anchorage Police Department Officer Araceli “Sally” Jones.

For the last 10 years, she’s been part of a special unit designed to build relationships with the homeless, particularly the several hundred people, mostly chronic alcoholics, who forgo shelters to live outside in this northern city’s large forested parks.

“Over the weeks, the months and the years, it takes its toll,” she said.

Here is what she observes: Skin dulls. Eyes lose their brightness. Sexual assaults are common among women who spend time in the camps. Many people bear evidence of physical assaults. And the cold eats at them. Fingertips, ears, toes and feet blister and turn black. Tissue dies and must be amputated.

When the weather slips below zero, Jones and other APD officers might cruise by the usual spots, the trails that zigzag into the snowy forests, the tents carefully hidden under trees just yards from businesses. They keep an eye out for faces that have grown familiar.

“Sometimes you stop seeing them,” she said. “And you wonder, what happened to these people?”

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