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City Hall homeless protest causes heartburn for Anchorage's mayor

Amanda Coyne

Sitting with John Martin III on his dirty blanket on the sidewalk, on the other side of City Hall, you get a pretty good idea of the footwear in style in Anchorage these days. Tevas and Danskos, ballet flats and stilt-like stilettos. Lots of good old-fashioned tennis shoes. After a while, you don't have to look up to know what kind of person is walking by. Hikers, tourists, office workers. Occasionally, as you're talking to Martin, you'll see a hand reach down and put something in his basket, a dollar, a cigarette, a few coins. One woman, wearing Nikes, put a small silver medal in the basket with an engraved angel on it.

A ball of twine for his kitty. A lighter. A few pieces of candy. ChapStick, which a reporter suggested he use. Martin's been in the full sun for a month now, out here either next to or in front of City Hall, protesting the mayor's policies toward the homeless, particularly the city's new ordinance that allows police to raze homeless camps in city parks.

He's got a nasty sunburn.

He just wants to talk to Mayor Sullivan, Martin said. He wants to tell Sullivan what he thinks needs to change. He wants the city to build a designated space for people to camp. He doesn’t think they should be forced into shelters or group homes. It’s Alaska. People love their freedom here, he said. They should be able to sleep outdoors if they choose to, he said. If not, they're going to find places downtown to sleep: doorsteps, stairwells, and parking garages. Place where he goes now at night to sleep. He'll get arrested if he sleeps on the sidewalk.

Martin said he might leave if Sullivan would just take some time out of his day to talk.

He said he's doing all of this for God.

The mayor refuses, and said in an interview he has no plans to do so. "I don’t have anything to talk to him about," he said.

Surely the mayor's intransigence is partly to blame for turning Martin's protest into a cause célèbre for the homeless, the downtrodden, the people who don’t feel they have a voice -- and their allies.

"I try to stay away from petroleum products," Martin said, referring to the ChapStick. Besides, he said, his lips are fine. His body has provided, in the same way the community has been providing for him. In the same way that God is providing for him. (However, he did admit that he could use some olive oil for his face.)

Indeed, on a Thursday afternoon, not 5 minutes seemed to pass without someone dropping off some food for Martin, or his dog and cat -- Sheba and Shiloh. Many God blesses. Many thanks. Some even call Martin a hero, though it's mostly young kids and others who themselves seem to lack a firm bed at night.

They, at least, want to talk to him.

From this vantage point, in the nice sunny weather, being given food and being called a hero by those who pass, it’s not such a bad life. It’s so good that it might spread. Which seems to be exactly what Anchorage Mayor Sullivan fears. He doesn’t want Anchorage’s sidewalks turning into a place where the homeless camp, or even sit. “Have you been to San Francisco lately?” he asked. “That is not going to happen to Anchorage.”

He’s so firm about this that he’s proposed a law to ban sitting or reclining on downtown sidewalks, with some exceptions. It’s a ban which makes the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union nervous. Tom Stenson, an ACLU lawyer, said that it’s fair to say someone engaged in a sidewalk protest is engaged in First Amendment activity.

The group has no plans to fight the proposed law right now, but they’ll be watching how it evolves, said Stenson.

But that's not all Stenson is worried about relating to the Martin case. On Wednesday night, Martin was arrested and charged with not being in compliance with the sex offender registry, which Martin is on and which dictates that you must provide residence at all times. The problem is that Martin doesn’t really have a home. Until last month, he had been living in a tent in the Campbell Creek area, a place he still calls home. Now, he doesn’t really know where his home is. When he was released from jail this morning on a $500 bond, he was required to re-register and now, he said, his home is somewhere downtown.

"We are concerned by the timing and the nature of his arrest," said Stenson. "It raises concerns about the possibility that his arrest is motivated by retaliation of his speech."  

Anchorage Police Chief Mark Mew said that they had gotten a lot of complaints from the public about Martin, but denied that the city's actions were retaliatory. "We do a lot of that work," he said.

Is Martin as dangerous as the mayor thinks?

Much has been made of Martin’s sex offender status. In a press conference Wednesday, the mayor made a point to make it a point. He admitted Thursday that his comments -- including the fact that he limits "discussion with first-degree sex offenders" -- might have not come off right and were spoken "off the cuff." But he did reiterate that "people who rape young girls are dangerous."

Martin doesn't think of himself as dangerous. And after spending a good deal of time with him on the street Thursday, it's difficult to make the connection. Martin's most "aggressive" action was to raise his fingers -- in the V of a peace sign. He's got clear blue eyes. A quick smile. A wide vocabulary. No booze on his breath. He only drinks in moderation, he said. Get him a shave and a shower and he'd be a guy you'd want to introduce to your parents, maybe even hire. If he wanted a job, that is.

But Martin did admit that he had made a terrible mistake years ago, one that he learned from and that he has no intention of repeating.

According to court documents, here's what happened:

In 1995, Martin was a 23-year-old married man with two children living in Kenai. His wife took in foster children, in part because it was the right thing to do and partly to make ends meet. They took in a 15-year-old girl who had been sexually abused and was "boy crazy" and "sexually aggressive," according to court documents. She had made advances to the husband in the house at a previous foster home. The couple had her leave.

Martin and the girl had intercourse about 13 times before he cut it off.

Martin had also come from a sexually abusive home. His father, court documents say, had been charged with abusing his sister.

At a sentencing hearing, a clinical psychologist who evaluated Martin said Martin showed no signs of being a sexual predator or a pedophile. He concluded that Martin's offense was situational in nature. Martin spent eight years in prison. When he was released in 2003, he worked in an acupuncture office, doing database entry and payroll. That lasted for about a year, before he got "a calling," as he recalled.

That was about two years ago. Since, Martin's been a one-man advocate for the homeless, living with them, helping them when he can, he said. Doing, he thinks, what God wants him to do. He even proposed that his church -- Abbot Loop Community Church -- the one his grandfather helped build, the one he’s been most involved with here in Anchorage, open up its parking lot to the homeless.

"It was a perfect idea," he said. "During the week, that parking lot is empty and then on Sundays, you've got them where you want them. You can bring them in the church."

When the church said no, he camped out across the street in protest. That lasted until he realized that his "hearts and minds campaign" was going nowhere. Next, Martin thought it best he take his tent and move to Campbell Lake. To really get to know the people he was trying to help. And that lasted until his tent was taken, and he was arrested for refusing to leave.

Now Martin's in front of City Hall, talking to street kids and to bums, sharing his shared goods with anybody who asks. Talking about God and goodness and helping your neighbor, the least of them.

'Give him some compassion'

Rick Benjamin, the well-known former pastor of Abbott Loop Community Church, knows Martin and worries about him, as does Martin’s mother, who is Benjamin's friend. "She's beside herself," he said. All the media attention hasn't been good for Martin, he said. It keeps him from getting the help he needs, he said.  

Benjamin also very much doubts that Martin is heeding "God's calling." God, Benjamin believes, talks to people in the "context of rationality."

A few months ago, Martin took off barefoot to walk to Iliamna, a move that Benjamin found irrational.

"What Martin says and does is weird and God is not like that," Benjamin added.

When it was mentioned that nearly all the characters in the Bible seem pretty darned irrational and weird, he said, "Just give him some compassion. That’s all I'm asking of the city, and the mayor too. He should show compassion."

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com