Group works on details of creating shelter for Homer’s homeless youth

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to show that the vast majority of homeless students on the peninsula are unsheltered but a few who are either over 18 or staying with a parent and a victim of domestic violence are sheltered at South Peninsula Haven House; and that the next Homeless Action Committee meeting occurred on Dec. 3, not Dec. 4.

In almost any situation when a teenager in Homer needs help with something, there’s an agency available to lend a hand. Need food? Head to the Homer Community Food Pantry. School supplies? A job? Clothes? Try the R.E.C. Room, the teen center of Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic. Adults there can offer support in all those areas.

But if what you’re missing is a warm, dry place to spend the night, you’re out of luck. The closest homeless shelter for unaccompanied youth is more than 220 miles away, in Anchorage.

That’s not just a hypothetical situation. According to Jane Dunn, the Students in Transition liaison for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, there are at least 49 homeless students from Ninilchik to Homer and 185 on record district wide, the vast majority of whom are unsheltered.

However, with some funding and a lot of volunteer work, that may change.

Members of the Homer Homelessness Action Committee, which meets monthly to work to fight homelessness in the city, say they’re starting to formulate plans for a cold weather shelter at the Salvation Army Church.

The Homelessness Action Committee was formed in June, after teenagers at the R.E.C. Room created a film called “Homeless in Homer” that sparked community-wide discussion of the issue. The group has a large mailing list and about 20 members who consistently attend meetings.

Creating a shelter is one of the committee’s three principle aims. Another is to raise awareness about the issue and provide information about available resources to people in need. The committee got a boost in that area with Homer High student Casey Marsh’s senior project, a sleep-out in WKFL Park earlier this month meant to call attention to area homelessness.

A third goal is to establish a safe homes network for homeless youth — a web of places where teens could couch-surf while looking for more permanent housing.

Tara Schmidt is a violence prevention specialist at South Peninsula Haven House and the committee’s coordinator. She said she recognizes that neither a shelter nor a safe homes network is a permanent solution. But she hopes that together, they could provide a cushion for teens with immediate need so that the committee could focus on addressing homelessness at its roots.

“We definitely want to be cognizant of the causes and look at it from a broader lens. It’s that balance of, ‘How do we keep people warm tonight?’ and ‘How do we actually prevent this?’” she said. 

A Salvation Army Church community development coordinator in Anchorage told the committee that the first step to opening a shelter is filling out a community needs assessment. Members of the committee are now doing just that — surveying organizations like the police department, hospital, food pantry and Haven House to obtain an accurate estimate of need in Homer. Once the survey is completed, the committee will send it to the coordinator in Anchorage, who will use it to help them apply for grants.

According to Lt. Christin Fankhauser, a pastor at the Salvation Army Church in Homer, over a period of six months the Salvation Army Church alone has spent approximately $5,600 on emergency lodging, utilities and rent assistance for 21 Homer families totaling 47 people. That spending came out of the money the church has raised in its thrift store and holiday kettles. Last winter, they received a $3,500 grant from the Rasmuson Foundation that covered the charitable expenditures for a few months, but that ran out halfway through the year.

Fankhauser doesn’t know yet whether the Salvation Army Church will receive another Rasmuson grant this year. The Salvation Army also made significantly less money from the store and kettles this year than last.

According to Anna Meredith, Youth Health Education and Programs Manager at the R.E.C. Room and a member of the committee, the Students in Transition program, which provides resources for youth in need, is nearly out of money as well.

To run a shelter, the committee would need to employ full-time staff and pay to keep utilities at the church running all night. They haven’t yet found funding for those things.

Finding qualified, responsible staff will prove its own challenge, said Meredith.

“It’s an involved cost because you have to have people trained and keep their trainings up so that they’re appropriate employees that are keeping the place safe for all ages,” she said. “Especially if it’s all ages, that’s really difficult.” She added that staff at the shelter would need to be working to help people find permanent housing, connecting them to other services in Homer.

Fankhauser said while she hopes a shelter could eventually occupy its own building, she’d be happy to take people into the church for now. But she still isn’t sure whether zoning regulations will allow the church to open a shelter in its current building. She knows they need to add another sink to be cleared to serve food.

Schmidt said she doesn’t see zoning as a major obstacle.

“I think that’s just one of the things that slows down the process but doesn’t necessarily present a road block because you can apply through the city to get zoning changes and the correct permits,” she said.

The process will definitely be long, Schmidt conceded. She’s cautious about setting a timeline for the shelter, but said she’s optimistic about the process — particularly with the recent heightened community awareness of the issue.

“It’s really exciting to have concerned community members emailing me. A lot of people want to know what’s going on and how to get involved,” she said. “…They see (homelessness) and they see the importance of it getting taken care of for the well-being of everybody in Homer. I think providing a structure for that is emerging, but right now it’s really amazing and vocal community support and people are really ready to pay attention to this issue.”

To assist with the plans for a shelter, you can donate to the Homelessness Action Committee or Students in Transition program, or sign up to be on the committee. Its next meeting is Dec. 3 at Homer Flex School at 5 p.m. Email Tara Schmidt at vista@havenhousealaska.org for more information.

Annie Rosenthal can be reached at annie.rosenthal@homernews.com.

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