Giving voice to a hidden issue: Vigil to raise awareness of Peninsula's homeless youth

Posted: Thursday, November 11, 2010

It was fitting that David Michael's fourth-grade class from Tustumena Elementary sang "Lean on Me" at the Candlelight Vigil for Homeless Youth in Soldotna Wednesday evening outside the Kenai Peninsula Borough building.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Tyler McDonald and Heather Craig keep candles sheltered from the wind as they listen to a prayer during a vigil for homeless youth at the Kenai Peninsula Borough building Wednesday night.

And it was fitting that when the 100 or so attendees went inside to watch the Covenant House Alaska's simultaneous vigil stream from Anchorage in the borough assembly chambers the sound was not working, a symbol of the silence surrounding homeless teenagers on the Peninsula.

"Our problem is relatively invisible," said Michael, who helped organize the Peninsula's vigil with his wife Debbie. "Because of the demographics of where we live, homelessness is quite hidden."

According to Debbie Michael, there are more than 150 "students in transition" within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Some 50 of those kids qualify as "unaccompanied" meaning they are detached from their parents and families.

And she thinks there's more than those statistics tell.

"We do have a number of homeless children and youth on the Peninsula right now," Debbie Michael said. "I'm thinking that even one homeless is too many."

Outside at the vigil, in below freezing weather, it was hard for some students not to think about what it would be like to be helpless and homeless in Alaska.

"I know it's tough for them," said Dartanian Aldridge, a freshmen at Cook Inlet Academy, who came to the vigil with his youth group from Peninsula Grace Brethren church.

Love a child

The Michaels became involved in helping homeless youth after becoming personally acquainted with one, David Michael said.

They met a 19-year-old who was living in an unheated shed, and then his car, during a winter eight years ago.

"That was our first exposure. It just really caught our attention then this is a real thing it's a real problem but it's quite hidden," he said.

Later, they became involved in the Love a Child organization, a non-profit Christian humanitarian group focused on helping children internationally.

"We send a good chunk of money overseas to help and we want to help kids right at our doorstep," he said. But the legal system in the United States makes it challenging to help homeless youth.

"It's easier to help a kid in a third-world country right now and we're doing that but it's very hard to help a teen and not get in trouble in America," David Michael said.

With events like the vigil for homeless youth, the Michaels are hoping to be able to help more and raise awareness of the problem locally. David Michael said they would like to see a facility similar to the Covenant House, a shelter for homeless teens, in the area, and that's what they are ultimately working toward.

"It's a dream, it's a hope and it's an ambition," he said. "It's not just a housing problem but it's being a resource for kids that really are disadvantaged and need a leg up at moving forward in life."

Scholarship of hope

Cece Missik, a senior at Kenai Central High School, said she knows a few teenagers at her school who don't have a place to sleep every night.

That's why she went to the vigil. And that's also why she's participating in the "scholarship of hope" program organized by the Michaels, a creative opportunity to imagine a better community and win a $500 scholarship.

Missik said she's working on a poem to submit as her application for next month's deadline. Part of the "scholarship of hope" requirement was attending the candlelight vigil.

"The teenagers and youth are the future. If they don't have a home they might not get raised in the right situation," she said. "I don't want our future to go down the tubes."

Several of local church youth groups rallied to support the cause and teenagers and children were at the vigil in force, the cookies and cider being just a perk of participation.

"I think it's a really big problem that really needs to be solved especially with the harsh winters of Alaska," said Lauren Countryman, a sophomore at Nikiski High School, who came with Peninsula Grace church. "The more things like this, probably the sooner this can get solved."

And a solution to the Peninsula's young voiceless and faceless homeless population is what the Michaels are hoping for.

"Sometimes we get the opinion that they brought it upon themselves," David Michael said about homeless teens sometimes being seen as bad apples. "There are teens that have legitimate needs."

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.



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