Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of stories the Homer News plans on youth homelessness on the Kenai Peninsula.
Casey Marsh is not homeless.
Each night, the Homer High senior heads back to Anchor Point, to a cozy bed and a loving family and a solid, warm house.
But on Nov. 7, come rain or shine, she’ll be outside all night in a cardboard box at WKFL Park — and she hopes you will be, too.
Marsh’s senior project is called “The Triple H’s of Homer.” That stands for “Homeless, Hungry, and Hopeful” — words that describe the situations of at least 47 students between preschool and 12th grade in Homer, according to Jane Dunn, the Students in Transition Liaison for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Seventeen of those students are living without a legal guardian, Dunn said, and she has 169 homeless students on record district-wide.
The sleep-out on Nov. 7 is the culmination of Marsh’s project, and its goal is to raise awareness about youth homelessness on the peninsula.
The idea for the project was born with Casey’s sister Chelsea’s senior project. Last year, Chelsea made care packages for homeless kids, calling the program “Teens in Between.” In helping Chelsea out, Marsh learned about the dozens of homeless youth on the peninsula.
Those high numbers didn’t surprise her. “I’ve actually talked to a few friends who’ve been couch-hopping and sleeping in cars,” she says.
But they did bother her. So did the fact that Covenant House, the closest shelter that houses teenagers, is more than 220 miles away in Anchorage. South Peninsula Haven House, which provides shelter for Homer women and their children who are victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse, isn’t set up to take in homeless teens.
Then Marsh heard about a sleep-out that Covenant House organized in March of 2014. Activists camping out in cardboard boxes for the night raised over $39,000 to fight youth homelessness. They also raised awareness about the issue — the mayor of Anchorage came to spend the night outside.
At the suggestion of family friend J.J. O’Rourke, who has been active in homelessness outreach, Marsh decided to recreate the event in Homer. She wanted to take her sister’s project a step further: not just help homeless kids, but work to prevent youth homelessness from its roots, too.
“I figured we already worked on the getting the help and making the backpacks, and you can only go so far with that,” she says. “What we really need to do is raise awareness … not just under the table try and help people. I want people to see it.”
Marsh didn’t have much free time to fill. Besides serving as a member of Colors of Homer, applying to college, and doing her schoolwork, she works several days a week at Black Water Bend Espresso. And just last month, Marsh published her first novel: “Skull Diver.”
But she dove right into the project. She reserved the park over a month ago, choosing a November date to highlight the fact that being homeless in Alaska’s climate is particularly challenging: “Instead of using our sunny summer nights, we are toughing it out the A.K. way this fall,” reads a description of the event.
Marsh is very clear that she wants the sleep-out to be sincere — true to the homeless experience. She says she’s considering making snack baggies like a shelter in Fairbanks hands out to the homeless.
“We were thinking about maybe doing that and handing them out at the event so you get kind of what you would get if you were homeless, rather than having this whole feast and making it be like, ‘Oh look, we’re pretending to be homeless but we’re not homeless so we’re making this more fun,’” she says.
But taking the issue seriously doesn’t mean the sleep-out can’t be fun. It’ll start at 6 p.m. , and friends of Marsh’s from Homer High will provide live music in the park’s pavilion all night. Gigi’s Donuts is providing pastries. All Hopped Up Espresso has contributed free coffee. And people won’t have to stay in their cardboard box shelters if they don’t want to, though the duct-taped doublewides that Marsh and her collaborators have been assembling could hold a person. While the event is titled a “sleep-out,” she doesn’t think there will be much sleeping.
Marsh says her ultimate goal is to get a shelter for youth on the south peninsula. It’s a goal she shares with members of Homer’s Homeless Action Committee, with whom she’s met to discuss the project. In the meantime, there’s no existing organization to create a fund to that end, so Marsh doesn’t plan to collect monetary donations.
Instead, she’s asking for supplies for local homeless youth, grouped into the categories of her three titular H’s. The “Homeless” box is for clothing and toothbrushes and other necessary items. The “Hungry” box welcomes food donations, which will go to the Homer Community Food Pantry. And the “Hopeful” box is for inspirational notes or gifts — things that might be on a homeless kid’s wish list.
Donation boxes will be located at the R.E.C. Room and the Salvation Army Church all month long.
Kachemak Gear Shed has donated cardboard boxes for attendees to camp out in, and Marsh says that another highlight of her event will be a box-decoration contest. Winners will be announced at midnight, with prizes provided by Black Water Bend Espresso and Marsh’s mother’s company, Anchor River Cleaning Service. Categories include Most Recycled, Most Creative and Colorful, Most Realistic for a Homeless Person’s Home and Most Realistic for a House.
Marsh is asking anyone interested in decorating a box to drop it off at the R.E.C. Room by 1 p.m. Nov. 7.
Meanwhile, at the R.E.C. Room last Thursday, Oct. 22, Marsh and friends got together to decorate their boxes. Homer High junior Ravi Cavasos, who’s volunteered to make a banner for the event, painted flowers all over his.
Mikylla Blauvelt, a Homer High senior who spent the afternoon collaging magazine pictures of food onto her box, says she’s glad to be a part of the project.
“I feel like it’s for a good cause, raising awareness for something most people don’t really pay attention to,” she says.
J.J. O’Rourke, also working on a box, says she’s very proud of Marsh.
“Casey is a wonderful example of true compassion and kindness and a giving heart for others,” she says. “She has a drive that’s unbelievable and I can’t wait to see what she does with her heart for others after she graduates.”
O’Rourke also says that helping with the project has been a learning experience.
“This has been humbling, trying to figure out how they would do this,” she says, gesturing at her hot-pink cardboard “camper” with a paint-soaked brush. “How does a homeless person sleep in a box if they don’t have duct tape? We have duct tape. Do they automatically have $12 tape? Probably not.”
It’s those kinds of realizations that Marsh says she hopes her project will help spark for other people in Homer. She knows a sleep-out isn’t the solution to youth homelessness, but she thinks it’s a start.
“That’s what I want people to see,” she says. “That we are an open community, and that there is a problem and as a community it should be worked out.”
To get involved with the Triple H’s of Homer, contact Casey Marsh at email@example.com or go to the project’s Facebook page.
If you want to be a part of the sleep-out, come to WKFL Park at 6 p.m. on Nov. 7. Bring a picnic blanket, folding chair, tent — or a cardboard box.
Annie Rosenthal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sleep-out for Homeless Youth
When: 6 p.m. Nov. 7, 9 a.m. Nov. 8
Where: WKFL Park
Why: To raise awareness about youth homelessness on the Kenai Peninsula (stats on P1).
What to bring: Food or clothing donations and a picnic blanket, tent — or cardboard box.