Faces on the street — Part 3
Every one of the people who have panhandled on an Anchorage street corner or passed out in a park has a story. Alaska Dispatch News reporter Marc Lester profiles nine in his series on the plight of the homeless in Alaska's largest city.
Lester reported this story, originally published by Alaska Dispatch News, while participating in the 2014 National Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. This is the second of four parts. Read other stories in the series here:
By Michelle Theriault Boots and Marc Lester
There’s a unique story, a distinct set of circumstances behind each person you might pass holding a sign on an Anchorage corner, drinking in a park or passed out on a bench.
Some say they are able to stop drinking when it’s time for a season of commercial fishing or an afternoon of day labor. Some say they simply prefer to sleep under the stars and escape what they see as the confines of conventional living. Less visible are those who have recently broken free from alcoholism’s grip and are concentrating hard each day in their efforts not to backslide.
We spoke with some of those men and women. Collectively, their firsthand perspective sheds light on how a person ends up living this way, what daily life can entail and some ways it is possible to climb out of it.
Albert Edwards, 45
Albert Edwards stood at the entrance to the Wal-Mart parking lot on Benson Boulevard, coated in the winter’s first big snowfall. He had a black eye and wore a knit cap that read, “G.A.P: God Answers Prayers.” The black eye was the result of running into the wrong group of people the previous week, he said. He thinks he was jumped for his bottle.
Edwards has been homeless in Anchorage for five years and drinks often. Sometimes he ends up sleeping underneath a tree and wakes at 3 or 4 a.m., cold. He has to start walking or he worries he might die in his sleep.
On the coldest nights, he makes sure to drink enough to be admitted to the Anchorage Safety Center, the sleep-off facility adjacent to the jail. He can stay warm inside for up to 12 hours.
Edwards first drank as a teenager in the Yukon River village of Holy Cross. He used to be able to manage it, he said, but things took a turn in 2007.
“I guess the worst time I started drinking was after my wife died. And then I’ve just been kind of on a downhill since then, since 2007.”
“I had gotten a few DUIs, and then I went to prison for that. I did five years on my last felony DUI. After that, I won’t touch anything with wheels…”
“I’ve never had a seizure before. I think I had a stroke, though. I’m not too sure. That’s when my whole left side stopped working, and then my face drooped on the left side… And then I couldn’t move my leg and arm. And it felt like real pain going up my arm. So I guess that was a stroke.”
Does he have a case manager?
“I don’t know anymore. I kind of gave up on them because they kept telling me, ‘Oh, we’ll help you get into this program.' But I never hear from them. Plus, they don’t know how to get ahold of me, because I don’t have a phone. I gave up on phones because I kept losing them ... I go down to Bean’s and check messages, see if there’s any messages for me. I always call up relatives and let them know I’m still alive, still walking.”
Carl Smith, 54
Smith is from Togiak but left, he said, because of poor job prospects. He moved to Anchorage in the 1980s, lost an apartment and found himself on the streets.
In years past, he has returned in summer to the Bristol Bay region to fish commercially for salmon and halibut. He loves the hard work of fishing and the way it reminds him of the best parts of his childhood, he said. When he’s working, he said, he’s too busy to drink.
“I stay over here at the shelter. I come eat breakfast and lunch at Bean's Cafe. I have supper at Brother Francis. I do day labor. I sleep on the streets. (Anchorage Police) trashed all my camping gear because it’s illegal to camp in Anchorage. I very, very rarely get picked up by safety patrol. I try not to be where they are at. I don’t want to be over there…
“I tend to stick with people who take care of each other. You get to know a lot of these homeless people. You help them out and they’ll turn around and help you out.
“Back when I first got homeless and I didn’t know about it, I passed out right up by the old soup kitchen. I had a couple of these homeless people that found me. It was in the middle of winter, like January. They found me in the snow bank. They brought me to their camp. To this day, I believe they did save my life.
“I have lost many friends. Probably the whole everybody on (the Bean's Cafe memorial wall), that’s their names, probably knew them all. One of them was my best friend, Gregory Jack. He was good, you know. I met him when I first became homeless. There was three of us that used to always stick together: me, Art Ivanoff and Gregory Jack. After Greg passed on we went our separate ways.”
Kenneth Nelsen, 60
Nelsen has a wizardly look, with a slight build and a long, gray beard. He knows how to stay warm outdoors because he camps nearly every night of the year, in hidden stands of urban forest. He says he hasn’t spent a night at the shelter in years, maybe decades.
Buildings feel like they are closing in on him, he says. He figures he’s claustrophobic.
Nelsen says he was was raised by his grandparents in Ninilchik, on the Kenai Peninsula. Even then, he liked to go outside, stand in the cold and look at the sky.
“I don’t care if it’s a gray sky like now or like in the middle of the night... I just want to be able to look up. I want to be able to see the stars. That’s what I want to see. And I do it every time I camp.”
“I’m feral. You know what feral is? Feral is a domesticated animal that has gone wild, and that’s what you’ll find. I’m one of the ferals…”
Moxie Kelila, 49
Fourteen years ago, Moxie came to Anchorage from Sleetmute, on the Kuskokwim River. He made a good living as a framing carpenter, he said. Back then, he was a functional alcoholic. On payday, he’d buy four or five cases of beer and tuck them away in the locked bedroom of his shared apartment.
Around 2007, Moxie stopped paying rent and lost his apartment. His sister offered to let him stay with her, but he couldn't abide by her no-alcohol policy. Staying at Brother Francis Shelter seemed like a solution.
Soon, he was staying in camps of his own making — beautiful camps, he said, with a stove and light and heat. He could make $50 to $60 doing day labor and would have plenty left over after buying Monarch vodka or Rich & Rare whiskey by the half-gallon. He started each day with a drink.
Last summer, Moxie tired of that life. He thought about his nephew, who once mistook a man passed out on the street for him. He decided he didn’t want to be mistaken for that person anymore.
That day in June, Moxie picked up his backpack, crossed the street, finished his bottle and told his drinking buddies he’d see them around. He ended the day at Anchorage’s only medical detox facility, the Ernie Turner Center.
“Psychiatrist told me I ain’t gonna hit 20, because I saw so much shit when I was growing up.
“I (went to sleep-off) quite a few times. I won’t lie, yeah… They know me by name. But now, I look at them and they look at me. ‘Hey, Moxie, we never see you in about three or four months.’ I said, ‘You’ll never see me again, knock on wood…
“I’ve been to hell and back. This life is great, man. I wake up every morning and I pray to my God, I look at (pictures of) my friends, my sister, my little buddy right over there ... I look them and I pray to my higher power. I thank him every day and I thank him every night. I’m alive…
"I used to carry a pack. I would walk out of Bean’s, I’d have six, seven people walking out with me ... I had a half-gallon. All my friends knew it. I’d have a trail walk out with me…
"Only I can make that mistake to go back to where I was, and take that bottle and drink. And there was a few times that it came pretty goddamn close… I held that sonofabitch. I held it right in my hand… That’s how close I came. I could taste it, I could smell it, without even opening it…"
Mike Johnston, 60
For about a decade, he used to wake up on the street or at the sleep-off center. Born near Ketchikan, Mike was adopted by an Anchorage couple after his parents died. He keeps a framed photo of his birth mother on his wall. He says not getting to know his birth parents remains one of his biggest unresolved issues.
Mike says he’s been an alcoholic for 44 years. His drinking put him on the street, landed him in jail and led to all sorts of other problems. Most recently, he sold a computer he’d saved to purchase for $20, because he was desperate for money to buy a drink.
“The foolish things I do when I want a drink,” he says ruefully.
When Mike walks, he doesn’t leave the gated lot of Karluk Manor. On the north end of his laps, Mike can see the Kings' X Lounge down the street, one of the few bars that used to let him inside, he said. He’s no longer welcome there, which is probably for the better.
When he’s thinking clearly, Johnston reads widely — his bookshelf contains volumes including the Bible, Tolstoy, Dr. Phil McGraw and Clive Cussler. He does puzzles and carves.
Mike’s longest stretch of sobriety since moving into Karluk lasted seven weeks.
“I refer to it (alcohol) as poison. I get drunk on a half-rack of beer and go into a blackout. That’s not the way God wants me to live, or how I want to live.
“I carve. I’m good at crossword puzzles. New York Times one is pretty tough. I like living in a clean home. Try to get my mind and my spirit clean…
“This (carving) is red cedar. This will be an eagle. I owe the ladies over there at the insurance agency. In one of my infamous blackouts last summer they caught me taking one of their flowers.
“I was given an ultimatum last year by one of the higher-ups. I went through a 12-week anger management class... I have a hard time sometimes expressing myself… using cuss words, having to almost pound someone’s face … I’m not into violence like I used to be. I want to get rid of that stuff and do God’s will. I want to be a success in life and have a little bit of happiness and joy in my life, be a help to my fellow man.”
Kenneth Parker, 51
But Mabel K. was different. She could run with him.
In the middle of winter, when the temperature dipped to minus 20, they’d cuddle up next to each other to stay warm, Parker said. They were inseparable, except when one would leave to panhandle.
Parker proposed to Mabel on The Deck, as it is known, a creek overlook at Campbell Park. Now her name is written in marker, along with other members of the group that gathers there to drink who have died in recent years.
“I asked her to marry me. She said yes, right here. We practically lived here. See, this is my front yard. This is my mansion and I got a million bedrooms.
“I found a wheelchair behind the dumpster because she was having a hard time walking. I pushed her because her ankles were swollen, her knees were swollen, and she was having trouble breathing. So I wheeled her to the Native hospital and they admitted her. And I stayed for a couple days with her. They kept putting more and more machines on her. And then finally, they says, well, it’s a, how do you put it, a contained area. I couldn’t go in there. And then I came back down here. And then the next day I didn’t go see her, but I was walking by the coffee shop over here. My friend that works there, she goes, ‘Mabel passed away.’ There’s nothing I could really do about it. I just wandered off and sat down by myself for a while. Drank a couple beers.
She was very important in my life. Very important. I don’t feel complete without her.”
Jeffrey Struck, 45
For a while, he had an apartment in Spenard. But people he’d been partying with wouldn’t leave, he said, and he was evicted.
Alcohol, head injuries and seizures fog up his days. His alcoholism complicates everything — his health, his ability to complete the paperwork necessary to get disability or Social Security benefits, and conversations with his family in California. For a man on the street, alcohol is in every direction.
That morning, Struck woke huddled in a doorway of an apartment building and walked out onto the Anchorage streets. He didn’t know which way to turn.
“If I get my medication and stuff, I can go cold turkey on that. One of my doctors says I’m epileptic, and that’ll stop me (from seizing)… I tell you what, the only thing I fear in this whole world, what we know of as a world, is the Lord our God. That’s what the Bible tells me. But that (a seizure) scares the pants off me, because I know when it’s going to happen. You ever look at the sun for a minute, like when you was a kid? And you look away and you see, like, these flashing little spots? That’s what I start seeing. It’s not immediate. That starts happening, and that scares the pants off me. And what do I do then? Lay down before I fall down. I’ve had them before, and I’m just out. And I’ll crack my head, and go down, wind up in a hospital. One of these days I’m not going to wake up…"
Savitri Chizmar, 58
But her life began to pivot back in 1989. That year, she was falsely diagnosed with HIV. The news destroyed her marriage. The Alaska Supreme Court eventually decided a lawsuit against the doctor in her favor — a high-profile case at the time.
After her marriage ended, her drinking worsened. Chizmar says she was able to control her growing dependence on alcohol during the years her children remained at home, but fell into homelessness after they left for college.
Chizmar now stays at a Spenard assisted living home, in a cramped room papered with pictures of her children. She is proud of their successes as adults — one teaches violin, another runs marathons, all attended college — and her greatest hope is to again become like the woman they respected growing up.
“After the divorce I’d drink to not hurt. I’d take care of the kids and after dinner was cleared, they did homework, and go to bed. I’d go to the backyard and have my music and be playing it and crying and drinking. After they were in college and stuff I started living in the street. They took my house away… I had to leave my house on Pribilof Street…
“I feel I’m a better person for (having been homeless). I look back and say, ‘Thank God I’m not in that situation again.' I have to do everything to make sure I keep something, to get back to where I want to be. I want to have my job...
“My children, they understand everything. You won’t believe. They went to Al-Anon on their own. (My daughter) said, 'Mom, I understand.' It was the best thing they could tell me: 'Mom, I understand.'"
Scott Brown, 56
In the afternoon twilight in November, as rush hour traffic built on 15th Avenue, he called it a day and headed toward a store. He tucked his handwritten sign inside several layers of jackets. It read, “Homeless. Could use some help.”
Brown “flew the sign” at the intersection of Ingra Street and 15th Avenue and at the crossroads of things going from bad to worse in his life.
He’s had experience packing Sheetrock and lumber on construction sites, but after two strokes and a heart attack, he’s not sure how many years his body will hold up. He wondered if some sort of retraining would help. He drinks and has ended up at the sleep-off center, but said he’s trying not to make it a routine.
“I’m not going to say that I haven’t had my days at sleep-off, and getting up and going down to Bean’s. I just try not to make it a lifestyle, is what I’m saying. I’m far from perfect.
"I don’t know what’s out there. I really don’t. Some kind of re-education. Like I say, a heart attack and two strokes. I’m probably not the brightest person anymore, but there’s got to be something out there that I can do.”