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Lighting candles of hope in the darkness

Posted: November 12, 2011 - 2:57pm

Imagine you’re cold, tired, and hungry. You’re not sure if a friend will let you crash on their couch tonight or not. Whatever place you’ve been huddled up in is about to close, and you’re not sure where you’re going to spend the night. The back seat of your car might be the most likely place. You don’t know where you can turn for help.

All this, and you’re only 16 or 17 — making it through high school is the furthest thing from your mind.

For too many Peninsula youth, this situation i snot imagination, but their every-day reality.

Homelessness on the Kenai Peninsula, particularly among teens, is an invisible problem. We don’t see people panhandling at intersections, or come across the homeless camps that exist in other places.

Even the definition of “homeless” is a little bit different here. Homeless youth on the Peninsula sometimes bounce from couch to couch or basement to basement. Sometimes they sleep in a car. Their next meal might come at a friend’s house, or from a school lunch program, or from a food pantry. Sometimes, that meal might be a day or more away.

“It was cold, it’s literally hell — you feel like you’re alone and at the same time, feel like a loser,” Forrest Vest, a Soldotna teen who found himself homeless at one time but has embraced a second chance, told the Clarion. “I had nothing.”

There are as many reasons for a young person to find himself or herself homeless as there are people in that situation — a family situation, an economic situation, an unfortunate past decision. Many times, youth who find themselves without a place to call home are victims of circumstances beyond their control.

Homelessness among youth is a problem that persists, and one that, one way or another, directly or indirectly, affects us all.

In fact, Kelly King, the homeless liaison for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said there were 301 students enrolled in the Students in Transition Program for Homeless Children and Youth during the 2010-11 school year. The program currently serves 121 students district-wide, which, according to the district’s enrollment numbers this year, means that about 1.4 percent of the district’s student population is homeless. Those are just the ones district staff currently are aware of, and for those 121 students, just getting to school each day may be an overwhelming challenge — never mind trying to learn.
We can cite statistics, but the fact is that there are fellow human beings suffering in our community.

“Once the problem takes on a face and a name you know, it really blows you away,” said Dave Michael, who with his wife, Debbie, has for the past two years organized a candlelight vigil to draw attention to the issue. “It brings it home in a big way. It’s a heartbreak to see teens struggle.”

But, there is hope. King has a list on her desk of 14 agencies to assist individuals and families in need — a cross-section of the agencies and organizations that offer assistance to those coping with homelessness. Some are government agencies, others are faith-based groups, such as Love INC or Pastor Robin Davis’ congregation at First Baptist Church in Kenai, which, when faced with the challenge of renovating an old bar to accommodate a meal program for youth, answered the question of “Can we do this?” with an unequivocal “Yes.”

Those organizations can help with a wide range of needs — from simply finding immediate shelter and a warm meal, to helping individuals and families secure long term housing.
It is important work, and while there are many people who do so much, there is still so much that needs to be done. Among the work still to be done is the establishment of a shelter for homeless teens in the area. It is an issue the Michaels continue to draw attention to, and Vest used a $500 scholarship he was awarded at the vigil last year to start the For Rest Fund, planting the seed to fund a teen shelter.

What people in our community are willing to do to help those in need, particularly those who have nothing — just a backpack and a 10-dollar bill, as Vest put it — is remarkable. We hope they continue their good work, and we urge everyone in our community to reach out to those who need a hand up. Every little bit of help spreads hope — like candles illuminating a cold winter night.

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