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Homeless man likely froze to death, investigators say

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KUAC file photo
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The City of Fairbanks and several area nonprofits are trying to offer refuge from bone-chilling cold to homeless people, like the man who died last week.

City, nonprofits combine efforts to offer refuge from bitter cold to ‘un-housed’ people of Fairbanks

A Fairbanks man who was living in a tent in the woods was found frozen to death during last week’s extreme cold snap.

Alaska State Troopers identified the victim as 55-year-old Charles Akiviana, of Fairbanks. They say they got a call on the morning of Dec. 23 from a man staying at a hotel off Old Airport Way reporting that he’d discovered a frozen body in a snowbank.

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KUAC file photo
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Conditions like this set in last week, making life much harder on homeless people. The ambient temperature dropped to about -32F on Dec. 22, the night investigators believe 55-year-old Charles Akiviana died. Winds picked up overnight, and the wind-chill temperature early on the morning of the 23rd got down to around 54 below.

A National Weather Service meteorologist says temperatures dropped to about 32 below zero Fahrenheit on the night of the 22nd, and the wind-chill the next morning was 54 below.

Troopers and Alaska Bureau of Investigation officers responding to the call found a tent in the woods nearby containing his belongings, including a wallet. They recovered Akiviana’s body and sent it to the State Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsy to confirm investigators’ conclusion that he died of hypothermia.

City housing coordinator Brynn Butler says her office wasn’t aware of an encampment in the area, but she learned Tuesday that there are about a half-dozen tents there.

“I will be sure to reach out to any of our people who bring out services to encampments,” she said, “and see if we can verify the number of people there and get them into housing, like emergency shelter.”

Butler and another Fairbanks homeless advocate said Tuesday that, depending on the outcome of the autopsy, Akiviana’s death could be the first case of a homeless person in Fairbanks freezing to death this year. But Butler says she can’t compare that to last year’s figures, because the city hasn’t tracked those fatalities.

“So I’m working on trying to figure out how we can get an accurate number of people who’ve passed away from exposure while being un-housed,” she said.

Butler says the city’s only chance to collect data that would reflect exposure deaths would come from the annual Point in Time count that’s conducted nationwide on Jan. 30 for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“So we’re getting ready to do that again for January,” she added.

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Restore Inc., one of several nonprofits that works to improve life for homeless people, offers shelter from the cold and help with overcoming substance abuse and other behavioral health issues at its Refine Stabilization Center, 215 Cushman St.

Brenda McFarlane also works as a homeless advocate for the city. And she says the poor state of health of many homeless people also complicates efforts to track their causes of death.

“It seems to be fairly rare for someone to actually die from exposure in a camp outside, like this,” she said. “Often, people would pass away from chronic illnesses.”

McFarlane coordinates the city’s Crisis Now program, which promotes mental-health services for the homeless. She says the need for those services is growing, based on the caseload of a downtown facility operated by the nonprofit Restore Incorporated.

“They’ve been seeing quite a few people -- over 200 in November,” she said in an interview Tuesday.

McFarlane and Butler say it’s especially important to work with Fairbanks-area nonprofits to assist the homeless during the winter.

“When we have temperatures like this, there are many agencies that are reaching out and telling people about resources,” McFarlane said.

Those agencies include the Fairbanks Housing and Homeless Coalition, an umbrella group that brings together several other organizations, including the Fairbanks Rescue Mission and the Bread Line, which provides free breakfasts and lunches. Additionally, The Door and Fairbanks Native Association offer services to homeless youth.

Editor’s note: This story was revised to correct the name of the nonprofit that operates the downtown Crisis Now stabilization facility: Restore Incorporated.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.