The blue tarp wasn’t well-hidden, but still hard to see in the dark at Campbell Creek Park, a few blocks south of Tudor Road.
“Hello,” I called.
“Who is It?” came a man’s voice from inside the shelter.
I explained through the tarp wall that we were doing the Anchorage Point-in-Time Count of the number of people in town who are homeless. I asked if they could answer a few questions.
“It’s not a good time,” the man said. I thought I heard a woman’s voice as well.
“OK. Can you at least tell me how many you are?”
“A man and a woman?”
They confirmed it.
I told them I could leave a package with some socks.
Goody bags are the calling cards and thank-you gifts of the Point-in-Time Count. The bags include warm socks and referral cards for help to housing.
“We have socks,” the man said. “We just need to wash ‘em.”
“Do you have any snacks?” the woman asked.
David Taylor, one of our team of volunteers, told them that there were granola bars in the goody bags.
I held it just off the snow as I reached around the opening of the shelter, not looking in.
“That’s good right there,” the man said.
“OK. Thank you,” I called. “Have a good evening.”
A few minutes later I thought that was silly to say. How good an evening can it be in a tarp and tent on a January night among spruce and deadfall, well within earshot of Tudor traffic, yet so far from anything to call home? From the opening of their makeshift shelter the couple could have seen the lamplight in an apartment window facing the park, warm light that signals socks in a drawer and snacks in a cupboard.
We moved on. We found no one else in the rest of Campbell Creek Park. Nor had we found anyone in MacInnes Park, along 36th Avenue, where homeless camps had been reported. What we found on the ground didn’t reflect the dots on the map, but spotting isn’t perfect, and campers are mobile. At one place along Campbell Creek, Taylor found signs of a flooded camp, including a bicycle only half above the ice.
The crew was game. Along with David Taylor were Peter Johnson and Mike Gutkin, all sergeants in the Alaska Air National Guard or Air Force, who had been “volunteered” by their NCO Professional Military Education class. That class contributed to a surge of volunteers that gave the count plenty of boots on the ground.
In our last big quadrant of the night, bounded by Elmore Road on the east and Dowling Road on the south, our main find was a ghost camp on Campbell Creek. Frozen laundry hung on a clothesline; a big square of black ash testified to a fire and a scrap pile told of a copper-stripping operation. We scanned the surroundings by headlamp and flashlight; some boot prints stopped at the creek with no tracks across. We’d walked a well-worn foot trail off the main trail into this camp; whoever had been here likely left the same way.
“We covered our areas,” Taylor said, including a late slog toward a promising clearing that came up empty. We thought we’d talk to more people. There was almost a sense of disappointment. On the other hand, if our share of the map was no longer current, that could be good news that more people were out of the cold.
I thought about the couple cold-sheltered in their tarp so close to the lamp in the window. Could be a bitter light to see from tarp and darkness. May the card we left lead to their own light of home.