In order to better serve the Kenai Peninsula's homeless population, increased communication and coordination is needed between the public, lawmakers and service organizations.
That was the message stressed repeatedly Wednesday by participants gathered in Kenai for the Kenai Peninsula Area Homeless Summit, sponsored by the United Way, Bridges Community Resource Network and British Petroleum.
More than 50 people attended the day-long summit, held at the Pacific Rim Institute of Safety and Management on Marathon Road. Participants spent most of that time divided into small groups, where discussions centered around finding constructive ways to battle a problem which is often overlooked on the peninsula.
"Most of the community don't even know we have a homeless problem," said Kenai Peninsula Borough homeless liaison Jill Beeson.
Beeson said an example of the unseen homeless in the area could be a high school kid who "couch surfs" from one place to another, without a permanent residence. Although not sleeping in the street, such kids are still without adequate housing -- which can lead to other problems. From a borough standpoint, Beeson said she wants to at least make sure homeless kids stay in school, where they're more likely to find help.
"The goal is to keep homeless kids in school, so they get a chance to maybe break the cycle they're in," she said.
Homeless kids in school do have access to information about potential programs that can help. However, that's not always the case with other homeless members of the community.
That's why increasing communication between the public, service providers and the homeless themselves is so critical, according to Kenai Peninsula United Way director Evy Gebhardt.
Gebhardt said letting people know what help is available is the biggest step toward getting someone into permanent housing.
"It's going to have to be a lot of community education," she said.
Gebhardt said that often, service agencies turn people away because they don't qualify for a specific program. And since there is no central information clearinghouse to outline all programs available area wide, people sometimes slip through the cracks.
"A lot of of (agencies) don't know what other agencies offer to the community," she said. "Or we're not sending them to the right sources."
Following the group discussions, the summit participants gathered to discuss potential solutions. First and foremost on their list was an idea to establish a lead agency to comprehensively deal with the issue.
As luck would have it, one organization stepped up and volunteered to serve in this capacity. Kenai Peninsula Housing Initia-tives Inc. board of directors member Heather Arnette told the group CPHI would be willing to serve in such a capacity, and the group tentatively agreed to have CPHI serve in this role.
CPHI board of directors vice president John Neville said after the meeting he believes the idea is a step in the right direction.
"It's very important. More and more people are getting together and talking about homelessness, which is a big problem on the peninsula," Neville said.
In addition to the establishment of a lead agency, participants listed as major goals a desire to increase legislative awareness of the problem, the need for a public directory of available services, more safe housing for teens with children and single adults and improved transportation services.
However, the theme stressed by all participants was the need to open additional communication channels between the various concerned parties.
Because the homeless population is so diverse -- including substance abusers, single parents, the unemployed, victims or perpetrators of domestic violence, the mentally ill and others -- it is often difficult to match needy individuals with the right program. Participants stressed that if more communication lines were open between agencies, more could be done to combat the problem.
The summit itself provided a good first step toward that goal. Many of the participants said they were unaware of many of the groups working with area homeless, and that just talking with other concerned individuals was a useful opportunity.
"It was really a chance to sit down and talk with people, which was good," said Jane Stein, president of the Bridges board of directors.
Stein said the summit was a step in the right direction. However, she said she wants to see more done to address the peninsula's homeless situation.
"We need to move forward. We just can't let it stop here," she said.
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