Stereotypes of the homeless drum up images of grizzled Vietnam veterans sleeping on park benches in big cities.
Homelessness on the Kenai Peninsula, however, doesn't usually mean roofless.
The face of the homeless on the peninsula is the family living in a motel because it can't scrape together enough money for first and last month's rent, plus a deposit. It's the family staying at a campground or cramped RV or with another family because they can't afford anything else. It's teenagers who "couch surf" from friend's house to friend's house because they've been left on their own, run away or, by mutual agreement with their parents, no longer live at home. It's a teen living in his car. It's the family living in substandard housing which may include extremely crowded conditions, no heat, no cooking facilities and inadequate plumbing.
Last year, there were 147 students enrolled in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District who fell into one of those scenarios. This year, the district already has had 27 referrals since classes began about three weeks ago. The school district calls them students and families in transition. The goal of the district's Students in Transition Program is to provide consistent, uninterrupted education so these young people can succeed in school, although the odds may be against them.
Several indicators help educators identify the students: fatigue and an inability to concentrate, poor grooming and hygiene, lack of school supplies or appropriate clothing, frequent absences and tardiness and chronic hunger. The students may lack the necessary enrollment paperwork. They come to school consistently unprepared. They often don't do their homework or return forms needing a parent's signature.They frequently lose their books and assignments.
And why not?
When you don't have a place of your own, things don't operate like they should. Getting homework done isn't a high priority when you don't have a home.
The school district program helps in a variety of ways. While students may not sleep in the same place every night, the school district can provide transportation, ensuring the student doesn't have to change schools with every move. Students are eligible for free school lunch meals. The district can make referrals for housing assistance and other resources.
If there are those skeptical that the Kenai Peninsula has a homeless problem, the Students in Transition Program provides plenty of proof that there is a need.
That's why the work of the Kenai Interfaith Shelter Services, or KISS, is worth noting and supporting. KISS is a collaborative effort between peninsula religious congregations and other volunteers aimed at helping house, feed and offer assistance to homeless families.
Under the KISS plan, area churches or other faith groups would provide their buildings to homeless families for overnight shelter. Volunteers from the same church, or another group, would provide food to the clients and stay overnight in the church as chaperones and companions. Each group provides shelter and-or food and companionship for clients for one-week stints on a rotating basis.
Connecting clients to available resources and a transportation system also are part of the KISS plan.
While several faith groups already have stepped forward to make the shelter program a reality, more volunteers are needed.
In addition to helping support KISS and other groups who provide assistance to families in need, there are other things the community can do. Among them is forming relationships with and mentoring teens who may be on their own. This is particularly important because these couch-surfing teens are vulnerable to predators, substance abuse and risky sexual behavior. Many of them drop out of school. These teens would benefit from adults who can teach them to set goals and who can tap into their talents. They would benefit by knowing the community cares for them, and they have a place here.
Community members also can help by putting away stereotypes they have of the homeless. The vast majority of the homeless are not drug abusers, nor do they have mental health problems. They aren't homeless because they want to be.
Another way the community can help is by attending just one meeting of KISS or other helping organization to learn more about needs in the community.
Education is a powerful thing. Raising awareness of a problem including homelessness puts a solution one step closer.
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