Hope for homeless

It’s not easy to be homeless in Alaska in November. That was the verdict among approximately a dozen people who spent Saturday night in WKFL Park as part of Homer High student Casey Marsh’s senior project, “The Triple H’s of Homer.” Temperatures sank to 28 degrees and the activists working to raise awareness about youth homelessness on the Kenai Peninsula woke up to snow falling on their tents and cardboard box shelters.

Although actual attempts to rest got pretty chilly, as Marsh had predicted, sleep wasn’t the event’s main activity. 

“The Triple H’s of Homer” stands for “homeless, hungry, and hopeful.” Saturday’s sleep-out was the project’s culmination. 

The event had two aims: to help participants better understand the difficulties of being homeless, and to bring attention to the plight of at least 47 homeless students in Homer and more than 169 on record in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

With the help of music, fire, good company and tasty snacks, the feeling that participants were doing something important kept the mood far more festive than frigid all night long. Updates from Homer’s Homeless Action Committee also contributed figurative light and warmth to the evening.

Salvation Army Church pastor Lieutenant Christin Fankhauser is an active member of the committee, which has met monthly since the summer to discuss ways to combat homelessness locally. At the park on Saturday, she explained that the committee hopes to open a cold weather shelter in the church this winter. The shelter would be the first available to youth in Homer.

Right now, the Homeless Action Committee is filling out a community needs assessment and working to add another sink to the church’s kitchen to get certified by the state. But once they complete those steps, Fankhauser said, a homeless shelter open to anyone in Homer might not be such a distant dream.

Having that goal within reach made Saturday’s event even more important to Marsh.

J.J. O’Rourke is the founder of a homeless youth advocacy organization called Teens United For a Future, or T.U.F.F. Teens. She helped Marsh conceive of the project, and the two of them arrived at the park to set up for the sleep-out at 11 a.m. Participants began arriving around 6. As the sun went down, volunteers from Gigi’s Donuts passed out pizza and still-hot, powdered sugar-doused pastries. Lights strung up around the park’s pavilion highlighted signs that read “Homeless, Hungry, and Hopeful,” and the donation boxes beneath them.

Under a pavilion that took some complicated maneuvering in the afternoon to raise, coffee donated by All Hopped Up Espresso and powdered hot chocolate provided something warm for cold hands to hold. Energetic communal renditions of “Old Time Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Home Alabama” continued until 1 in the morning. When people got chilly, they took a trip to the public restrooms to warm up under the lights. A bonfire blazed in the donated pit until 4.

Many of the people present early in the night were friends of Marsh’s: schoolmates, family friends, her sister.

Last year, when Chelsea Marsh was a Homer High senior, her project “Teens In Between” supplied homeless youth with backpacks full of supplies. That project inspired the younger Marsh to continue the fight against youth homelessness, this time at its roots — by raising awareness. Sitting by the fire, Chelsea said she was proud of her sister.

“She definitely wanted to put herself in someone else’s shoes and I think this is a really good way of portraying that,” she said.

As the night continued and the temperature dropped, community members started showing up. High school students Tyeler Cooper-Day and Leo Castellani set up a tent.

“Being really exposed to the homelessness in Homer, having friends who are and having been myself, not entirely but somewhat, it really strikes home and it’s really something I’d like to see fixed,” said Cooper-Day.

Pam Hokum had read about the event in the newspaper, and brought along both a tent and her brother Jeff Middleton and his wife, Janet.

“I thought, I can do this. It’s one night. I love to camp anyway and I’d like to be involved because I think it’s really a shame that we have this problem,” said Hokum. “It may be a small crowd but everyone’s going to go away with a better understanding of the homeless population, what resources are available, and we’ll pass it on to other people. That’s my hope.”

Sure enough, much of the campfire discussion was about the resources available to Homer’s homeless. Passersby who stopped to ask what was going on at the park mostly weren’t aware of the magnitude of the issue or that the closest shelter for homeless teens is more than 220 miles away, in Anchorage.

O’Rourke has taken 11 homeless youths into her home over the years. She said Saturday that in her experience, the main causes of teen homelessness in Homer have been divorce, addicted parents and lack of economic resources.

“One Social Security check pays for rent, but what about food? A lot of people get $19 in stamps for the month. It’s not enough for anyone to live on,” she said.

She explained that the issue is further complicated by the fact that many homeless teens are ashamed of their situation and don’t want their peers to find out.

Homer High senior Shenandoah Lush, who works as a peer educator at the R.E.C. Room, agreed. She offered insights from her own experiences with the foster care system, saying that at the time she had wanted to keep the challenges she was facing to herself.

“That’s why I think it’s so cool that teens made this (event) happen. It’s showing, ‘We’re in school, too. We care about you guys. We want a shelter, too,’” said O’Rourke.

Fankhauser encouraged anyone interested in helping with the shelter project to come to Homeless Action Committee meetings on the first Thursday of every month — or at least get on the committee’s ListServ. A sign-up sheet filled quickly as it was passed around the fire.

Later, Marsh said she appreciated the active response of the community.

“My favorite part of the event was meeting all the new people who had heard of my event … and how they all appreciated the effort that the youth of our community are showing.”

Around midnight, a slow diaspora from the fire began — people peeled off to curl up in cars or tents.

The toughest climbed into cardboard boxes.

Fankhauser’s husband had created a cardboard truck based on the ones the Salvation Army uses to distribute food during disasters. The vehicle was big enough to curl up inside, with windows and license plates on both ends.

“I’m going to try and tough it out tonight so I can say, ‘I experienced it and we need to do something about it,’” Fankhauser said.

True to her word, she made it until morning, emerging at 7 a.m. to head to church.

Homer High sophomores Mila Stickrod and Rachel Seneff also stuck it out for the entire night in a slim, semi-flattened cardboard box decorated with swirls of paint and tin foil. They said the design was meant to mimic a spaceship. In the morning, anyone passing by the box wouldn’t have guessed there were people inside — the two girls were nearly flat, huddled together in blankets, entirely invisible under the cardboard. Their presence seemed a perfect example of the event’s larger purpose: a reminder to take a closer look at what appears to be a pile of junk, because humanity is hidden inside, trying to stay warm.

Around 9:30 a.m., Marsh distributed awards to event participants. Anchor River Cleaning Services presented a $25 voucher to Fankhauser for the most creative box shelter. Homer High junior Ravi Cavasos received an award for the most colorful. The R.E.C. Room and Black Water Bend Espresso each contributed T-shirts for “Most Dedicated.”

Next on the agenda were taking down tents and consuming free K Bay Caffe and German pancakes provided by the R.E.C. Room’s Anna Meredith. Then the “Sleep-Out Warriors,” so named by O’Rourke, headed home to warm beds, feeling very grateful that they could.

Marsh said she thinks the sleep-out went very well for the first event of its kind. It completed its goal of creating a concrete visual representation of the issue. It sparked compassion. And it got people talking.

“It created the response I had hoped for and now I am going to work on getting the donations to those in need and we will continue working on establishing a solid shelter through our monthly homeless in action meetings,” she said.

On the afternoon of Black Friday — Nov. 27 — all the donations Marsh has collected will be available at the Salvation Army Church for pick-up by anyone in need. Anyone interested in joining the Homeless Action Committee’s email list should contact Casey Marsh at caseydeann32@gmail.com, or call Tara Schmidt at South Peninsula Haven House at 235-7712.

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