Alaskans demand safer highways after string of collisions

Sometimes it takes a drastic situation to produce a solution. That's the case for Anchorage, where legislators are scrambling to make Seward Highway safer to drive after a string of accidents this summer, reports Sean Cockerham of the Anchorage Daily News. Although the number of fatal crashes statewide is down – 38 this year, compared to 56 in 2008 – eight people have died on Seward Highway since May.

Four major roadways in southcentral Alaska have been dubbed Traffic Safety Corridors, requiring extra attention, reports Jeff Richardson in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Offenses in safety corridors lead to double fines. One problem with these roads could be that they haven't grown along with the rest of the state, and need upgrades.

Officials are looking for affordable solutions. The number of state trooper cars patrolling the areas is up. The Department of Transportation plans to install rumble strips dividing lanes and new reflective markers on corners. The state also could change speed limits, put in concrete barriers, or add more turnout areas for slow cars to pull off. Adding double-yellow lines to make the areas no-passing zones might frustrate drivers who get stuck behind a slow vehicle, causing them to make risky decisions, the state says. The most expensive option would be to widen stretches of highways from two to four lanes, but with budget tightening, this isn't likely to happen, officials say.

Anchorage mayor vetoes anti-discrimination ban

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan had one week to decide whether to support an ordinance approved by the Anchorage Assembly banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. After seven days of receiving thousands of phone calls, e-mails and other messages and listening to heated public hearings, he vetoed the ordinance. His reasoning? Sullivan doesn't believe discrimination by sexual orientation exists in Anchorage, reports Don Hunter in the Anchorage Daily News.

The veto frustrated supporters, who have been pushing for gay rights in Anchorage since the 1970s. Many waved rainbow flags outside City Hall Monday in protest of the mayor's decision.

Assembly Chairwoman Debbie Ossiander voted against the ordinance, worrying it would force businesses to create unisex bathrooms and alter their facilities in other ways.

But Spokeswoman Jackie Buckley of Equality Works, a coalition supporting the ordinance, said the mayor could have used the ordinance to stimulate business:

“This was an opportunity. It was good for business, so Anchorage could attract and retain the best employees and customers. This is a giant step backwards by the mayor, not seeing that.”

Twelfth body of homeless person found in Anchorage

Another body of a homeless man was found in a car in downtown Anchorage, the twelfth body since May, reports Megan Holland in the Anchorage Daily News. Friends say the man was friendly and known as “Bart” at a local shelter he frequented. Police do not suspect foul play in this death, but are still investigating. They attribute all but one of the twelve deaths to chronic drinking.

InvestigateWest covered this story in more detail here.

– Emily Linroth

Discrimination based on sexual orientation banned by Anchorage Assembly

After two months of heated debate, the Anchorage Assembly voted to approve an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, reports Don Hunter in the Anchorage Daily News. The law is designed to protect rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in employment, credit, housing and public accommodation situations. As an interesting compromise, religious organizations are exempt from the ordinance, allowing them to hire people consistent with their beliefs. The ordinance passed with a 7-4 vote on Tuesday, one vote short of the supermajority necessary to override a mayoral veto. Mayor Dan Sullivan has one week to decide whether to support the law.

This vote follows the introduction of legislation in the Senate one week ago to ban discrimination by gender identity or sexual orientation in the workplace on a national scale. It's known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and is supported by Democratic senators from Oregon and Massachusetts as well as Republican senators from Maine, reports Charles Pope in The Oregonian. The bill would protect people who identify or are perceived as gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual. Thirty-eight senators total support the bill so far, but its future is uncertain. Senators who favor the bill hope a Senate vote last month that defined attacks based on sexual orientation as hate crimes will spur more support.

This goes beyond politics and spats over gay marriage. There are already laws in place prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, age, religion, disability and national origin. Why would sexual orientation or gender identity be any different?

– Emily Linroth

As homeless tolls rise, so does the need for a solution

Nine bodies of homeless men have been found outdoors in and around Anchorage since May of this year, with the latest discovered this weekend, reports Kyle Hopkins in one of a series of stories in the Anchorage Daily News. The most recent man had been dead for several days before discovery. Police report no signs of foul play, but don't yet know his cause of death.

Four of the previous deaths were alcohol-related, but no other links between all the bodies are apparent. Four of the men were Native Alaskans, spurring talk that the deaths were racially-motivated killings, but so far no evidence has been released to back this up. One man was robbed and beaten to death in Centennial Park by two 18-year-olds who stole a duffel bag, $7 and beer. They have been charged with second-degree murder. Police say at least one of the teenagers was living at a camp in the park as well.

The cluster of deaths highlights a growing problem. Following recession and “gentrification” of downtown Anchorage, the number of homeless people in the city increased 35 percent from last year to almost 3000. Only about 13 percent are substance abusers or chronic inebriates. And with shelters overflowing, the question now is, where are these people going to go?

The police say they would like to get homeless people out of camps and into a centralized location, perhaps a tent city, similar to what Seattle did with their “housing first” plan where they set people up with housing without requiring them to halt substance abuse first.

Deaths of homeless people spur opening of involuntary detox center

Half of the eight deaths of homeless people in Anchorage over the past few months were alcohol-related, prompting the city to open an involuntary alcohol-treatment facility, according to the Associated Press. The center wants to provide beds for people to sober up and stay longer if they need to, and help them work on long-term treatment. Involuntary commitment can only occur if a person is incapacitated or has threatened violence, and if a family member or doctor petitions for it. This procedure isn't new, but has been held up by lack of space at other detox centers throughout the area.

– Emily Linroth

Anchorage cracks down on homeless camps

Time is up for homeless camps in Anchorage, the AP reports in the Anchorage Daily News. The Anchorage Assembly passed a law Tuesday night making camping on public lands illegal and allowing police to break up camps 12 hours after posting notices, rather than the previous 24-hour notice period. While city officials say the camps attract crime and wild animals and raise fire danger due to unlawful burning, some worry the new law will hurt homeless people who don't cause problems but can't find room at shelters. With no clear estimate of how many homeless camps exist in Anchorage, it will be interesting to see where all these people go.

-- Emily Linroth, InvestigateWest intern

Gangs go gangbusters in Anchorage

Police report “tremendous growth” in gangs in Anchorage, although they admit at least part of the upsurge may be the result of better police work to identify gangs and gang members. Gang activity seems to be increasing as people from the Lower 48, facing hard economic times, move to Alaska’s largest city so they can get their annual dole from the Alaska Permanent Fund, says the story by James Halpin. However, check out these numbers: Police say they recently counted more than 125 gangs, 55 of which met the definition of a gang under Alaska law. (That’s an increase from a total of 112 suspected gangs counted as of last December.) This same count identified 354 verified gang members. Hmm, that’s only about three to six members per gang. Police say they suspect these 354 verified gang members have some 2,400 associates, up from a total of 1,000 verified gang members and associates as of December.