Chaos for homeless ripples into downtown Anchorage, where ambassadors guard a fragile recovery

For the NEIGHBORS project, I took a look at how the pandemic changed downtown through the eyes of two downtown ambassadors, charged with waking people sleeping on the street in the mornings.

Here’s how it starts:

Brendan Haviland and Ray Gilkey, two ambassadors with the Downtown Partnership, set out before 6 a.m. Tuesday to wake the people who sleep on Fourth Avenue.

Maybe 30 people had bedded down along the quiet buildings and under trees in Peratrovich Park. Feet jutted out of doorways and bodies lay under piles of blankets. An older woman sat on the sidewalk outside the 4th Avenue Market Place in her stocking feet. She was soaked with urine. A pair of shoes sat nearby.

“Anchorage Downtown Partnership. Do you think you’re able to get up? Ma’am?” Haviland said gently. “Ma’am?”

“We got tourists coming down,” Gilkey said.

The woman started hollering. Her words melted together. She mentioned health problems, but they couldn’t make out the details. They dialed 311 to get her a ride to the sleep-off center with the hope that safety officers would take her to the hospital if she needed it. Then, they waited. This was their routine.

Downtown Anchorage is the historic heart of the city, a center of commerce, a significant source of property tax revenue and an entry point for tourists. The ambassadors are its guardians, a group of 21 people in neon vests and yellow jackets who take care of the neighborhood on behalf of the businesses. They give directions, remove snow, clean public restrooms, pick up trash and hose away all manner of bodily fluids. Some spend so much time interacting with the unhoused population, the regulars greet them with a fist bump. The jobs start at $16 an hour with benefits. The last few years, their work is increasingly complex.

Read on.