Juneau opens safer, more accessible campground for people without homes

A camper heads into town from the City and Borough of Juneau's Mill Campground on April 29, 2020.
A camper heads into town from the City and Borough of Juneau’s Mill Campground on April 28. The campground, which opened for the season a week earlier, primarily serves people without homes and in transition. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

On Tuesday afternoon, Dale Gosnell was screwing a wooden sign onto a bulletin board with the name of this clearing: Mill Campground. He’s a park ranger with the city.

Juneau Park Ranger Dale Gosnell works on a sign at the city’s new Mill Campground on April 28. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The City and Borough of Juneau opened the new, seasonal campground last week. The 20-tent site has some basic amenities, but it’s not for recreation. It’s one more piece of the city’s efforts to give shelter to people without homes.

The new campground was set up with safety and accessibility in mind. It replaces a campground with a checkered history that Gosnell also worked on.

“It started out more as a seasonal campground for people working here for the tourism industry, but it kind of ended up into being more … people without as many options for housing,” he said.

This new campground is a little under a mile from downtown Juneau. It’s on the side of Mount Roberts in a power line corridor. Beyond this tidy clearing, there are some ruins of the old AJ Gold Mine, and a lot of alder trees.

Twelve out of 20 tent platforms at the City and Borough of Juneau's seasonal Mill Campground are occupied on April 28, 2020.
Twelve out of 20 tent platforms at the City and Borough of Juneau’s seasonal Mill Campground are occupied on April 28. The campground, which primarily serves people in transition or without homes, had opened a week earlier. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

A week after opening, 12 of the 20 tent platforms were occupied at the free campground.

Mariya Lovischuk of The Glory Hall soup kitchen and shelter refers a lot of people to the campground. The shelter’s capacity has been cut to comply with social distancing mandates. And a city-backed overnight winter shelter normally closes at this time of year, though the city’s Chief Housing Officer Scott Ciambor said the original contract to operate through April 15 has been extended through July 15 because of COVID-19.

“It was an idea to take some of the pressure off surrounding private lands where people were camping, and to provide a place with facilities, basic services for people who did need to camp for different reasons,” said Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Michele Elfers.

She worked with the landowner, city housing officials and service organizations to close the old Thane Campground and open the new one.

“The main reason we relocated is, it’s really difficult access to the old campground. It was only accessible by two steep trails, really narrow trails,” Elfers said. “So we were having a hard time maintaining it safely and effectively.”

The old site is about half a mile farther out of town. It’s got avalanche and landslide risks. The ground is uneven, paths are swamped in some spots by runoff from Mount Roberts and the clearings are narrow. Elfers said bad sight lines made it difficult for employees and campers to feel safe.

There were other issues at the old campground, too. In 2010, there was a shooting there involving two campers and an off-duty caretaker. They were drinking, in violation of the campground rules, as was possession of the pistols involved. One person was seriously injured and the city got sued, unsuccessfully, for negligence.

At the new site, Elfers said Juneau police and social service organizations plan to visit regularly.

It has gated road access and flat ground. You can see all of its facilities from just about anywhere on site.

Another improvement? A basic handwashing station.

“It’s just a little foot-pump powered tap with a soap dispenser. It does the trick,” Gosnell said as he demonstrated. “So yeah, that’s an improvement. So people can at least wash up a little bit.”

In town at a soup kitchen’s lunch service, Cary Shilts said he’s stayed at both campgrounds.

“I’ve been in this town 20 years. … Everybody calls me Harmonica. Harmonica is what they call me. I’m about to show you why.”

He pulled out a harmonica and played an upbeat song called “The Auctioneer.”

Shilts used to work as a construction contractor. He said methamphetamines led him to living on the streets. But he said another substance drove him away from the old campground.

“You know, I didn’t have any problems with anybody until they started moving in with their alcohol,” he said. “I don’t do alcohol. I don’t do the belligerent behavior that comes with it. I mean, I just won’t have it around me.”

Shilts’ stay at the new campground was brief.

“I tell you what, I went out there and set up my camp. … I left there for just a few hours. I come back, and somebody tore all my tarps down. Everything I got was soaking wet. So I just packed it up and left.”

Now, Shilts said he’s camping on his own under Mount Juneau.

He’s hoping to busk this summer. He said he wants to earn enough to see his grandkids down south before his colon cancer catches up with him.

“Yeah, I gotta hurry, I gotta go home. That’s about all I want to say,” he said.