Shelter network to open shortly

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2004

If all goes as planned, Kenai Interfaith Shelter Services could have a network of volunteers serving homeless people on the central Kenai Peninsula by the end of the month.


Kenai Interfaith Shelter Services is seeking volunteers and donations. More information on the shelter network is available online at www.bridgesnet or by calling Bridges at 262-2659.

Organizers of the upstart group met Thursday to discuss progress on fund-raising, volunteer coordination and other projects integral to the beginning of a faith-based network expected to help house, feed and provide assistance to families experiencing homelessness.

The system, already aligned with the national Family Promise program and the National Interfaith Hospitality Network, will be a collaborative effort between area religious congregations and other willing volunteers and groups to offer overnight shelter, meals, companionship, resources and hope to homeless families using already existing resources.

The program will have three components: host congregations, a day center and a transportation system. Host congregations may be churches or other faith communities who open their buildings to homeless clients for over-night shelter and-or provide food and company for clients for one-week stints on a rotating basis.

Heather Hasper, one of the founding organizers of the group, explained Thursday that church groups can work alone or in pairs on the rotating schedule to provide services.

Cots, blankets and other supplies to be owned by KISS will be moved into a church building for a week at a time, and clients will stay overnight in the temporary shelters. Volunteers from the host congregation or a cooperating group will serve food to clients and stay overnight in the church as chaperones and companions.

"(The national guidelines for the program) recommend 10 rotations," Hasper said. "That way, one facility doesn't feel bombarded."

The host and support groups would work for just one week at a time, and if at least 10 groups sign up, rotations would come around just once every two months.

During the day, children will go to school while adult clients are taken to a day center at the Bridges Community Resources Network office or to the Peninsula Job Center to look for work, housing or other assistance as needed.

Transportation between the evening shelters and the day center will be provided through a joint operating agreement KISS has established with Central Area Rural Transit Inc. (CARTS).

Organizers announced Thursday that several area faith groups already have committed to working with the program, though more volunteers always are needed.

In addition, they said other community organizations are on board to provide the other necessary support systems for the program.

Matt Kelley of Central Peninsula Counseling Services told organizers that his colleagues are prepared to help out with screening of clients. The system will be designed to work primarily with families who are experiencing homelessness and, because of the volunteer nature of the network, clients with drug and alcohol addictions, violent histories and-or significant mental health issues will not be served by this system.

"We're not trying to solve the entire homelessness problem," Hasper explained. "We're just trying to help in our little corners."

Jane Stein, another founding member of the group, told meeting attendees that a grant KISS has applied for with Wells Fargo looks promising, and other donations already have come in totaling a cash reserve of about $400. Letters seeking support and donations have been sent out to several area organizations, as well.

Stein also said the city of Soldotna has appropriated a grant for the organization, and a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said his church has decided to purchase the cots, blankets and other start-up supplies for the group, freeing up donated money for other expenses.

Most importantly, though, Karen Ruebsamen, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's homeless liaison, told meeting attendees that the need for shelter services on the peninsula is real and immediate.

Ruebsamen's job is to work with children and families in the school district who are experiencing homelessness, to make sure they are connected with resources immediately available. For example, she said, students who are identified as homeless automatically qualify for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program, as well as district-funded transportation to the school of origin (meaning students don't have to change schools as their families try to find more permanent housing).

Ruebsamen said she already has had 27 referrals since classes began less than three weeks ago, averaging three calls a day for students in need of assistance. That's up from an average of one referral a day last fall.

"I don't know if the problem has increased or if it's just that awareness has increased," she said.

Either way, she said, about half of the students in need of help are unaccompanied by parents, while the other half are from families that are experiencing homelessness.

"I have at least one family that I would send to (KISS) if you were up and running right now," she said.

Organizers said they are getting close to that point.

Jon Walters, pastor of the Kenai United Methodist Church of the New Covenant, said his congregation is ready to start serving clients immediately, and Stein said temporary screening arrangements can be set up until more training or a permanent position is established.

Organizers have set their next meeting for 11:30 a.m. Sept. 23, marking a move to regular meetings on the fourth Thursday of each month, at Soldotna City Hall. At that time, they said, formal nominations will be taken for a board of directors and, hopefully, preliminary shelter services can begin immediately following the meeting.

"I think we're getting ready to start," said KISS chair Heidi Penttila.

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