Soldotna’s Farnsworth Park was aglow with more than 40 candles Thursday evening as Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Love, INC and community members gathered to help raise awareness about the reality of homelessness on the central Kenai Peninsula.
Kelly King, homeless liaison for the school district, said the outdoor vigil is the fourth annual event in the community.
“In my mind this event serves two purposes: raising awareness and bringing hope. The homeless population is still pretty invisible on the Kenai Peninsula,” she said.
She said the event has focused on only homeless youth in the past, but this year the scope has expanded.
“With the closing of the Family Hope Center at the Merit Inn and incredibly limited forms of affordable housing, we recognized that homeless families needed to be acknowledged at this event as well,” King said.
As liaison, King helps homeless students and their families. The district’s Students in Transition program’s primary purpose is to ensure that educational programs are not interrupted while families are in transition.
King explained that life for homeless families can be chaotic and difficult.
“When a student or family are experiencing homelessness, things can be a mess — they aren’t sure where they will be sleeping, when they will eat, how they will shower … and then there’s still school to worry about. It can be an uncertain and stressful time,” she said.
Keeping students in transition in school and at the same school, if possible, is something King said is a critical part of their life.
“Consistency in environment and with their support system of teachers and friends not only helps academically, but emotionally. The KPBSD Students in Transition program is the only program that specifically addresses the academic portion of a homeless child’s life, making sure that they not only have continued access to education, but the supports and supplies they need to be successful,” she said.
The program provides prekindergarten to 12th-grade students with free school lunches, school supplies, paper work assistance to secure school documents, immediate school enrollment and special academic support if necessary. An advocate also helps students and families find the resources they need in the community for food, shelter, clothing, transportation and permanent housing.
“The average age of a KPBSD student experiencing homelessness is 12 years old,” King said.
Since the beginning of the school year, King said the program has identified 101 students experiencing homelessness, 64 on the central Peninsula and 37 on the southern Peninsula.
The numbers span all grades, and are in virtually every community of the Peninsula. Currently, 63 students belong to homeless families and 38 are unaccompanied youth. King said the numbers will grow throughout the school year.
King said unaccompanied youths are defined as a homeless youth not in the physical custody of their parent or legal guardian.
“Their families may be in the area, but the students are not living with them; this occurs for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Students may have been kicked out, abandoned, have parents who are incarcerated or passed away, or they have made the decision to leave the home.”
King said while unaccompanied youth tend to need more support and advocacy for service, they are also greatly misunderstood — thought to be kids who just don’t want to follow the rules at home. She said this generally is not the case.
“Studies show that 90 percent of teens who choose to leave the home do so because of some type of abuse, neglect or unhealthy dynamic that existed within it,” King said. “The few who do leave for more ‘shallow’ reasons usually go home pretty quickly; it doesn’t take long to realize being on their own is not as easy as they imagined.”
King said with Thursday’s vigil and the daily work done in the community for area homeless, her ultimate goal is to bring attention to the issue so more of those in need, be it students and their families, receive help.
“We need to be a community that tells our homeless that they are not invisible, that their struggles matter and that we are moving in a direction of positive change,” King said. “There is a lot of work to do. We need to get involved and we need to be the hope.”
Find more information on the district’s “KPBSD Students in Transition” Facebook page.
Sara J. Hardan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.