Peninsula charities grapple with problem of homelessness

Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2001

Anyone who thinks homelessness is one of those big-city problems that only exists in places like New York City or San Francisco can think again.

The Kenai Peninsula may not have people sleeping in store-front doorways, begging for change at intersections or exhibiting the other stereotypes of homelessness, but that does not mean homelessness is not an issue facing peninsula communities.

"You might not see people standing on street corners, but there is a very large homeless population on the peninsula that people aren't aware of," said Evy Gebhardt, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula United Way.

The traditional definition of homelessness used to be people who sleep in their cars or live on the streets. There are certainly people who fit that description in big cities and smaller communities today, even in the central peninsula.

It is not unusual for migrant workers to spend the summer in a tent in an area campground. It can even happen during the winter, although people without a place to stay on the Kenai Peninsula tend to gravitate toward homeless shelters in Anchorage once winter sets in, said Alice Lambert, a social services worker with the Salvation Army in Kenai

But someone literally without a roof over their head isn't the only definition of homelessness anymore, said Peggy Moore, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank.

"We used to always think of being on the street or living in a car as homelessness," Moore said. "But it's not having your own home too. We have a lot of families who don't have their own place and are kind of bunking with other families -- families and individuals who are taken in by friends, but in reality those people are actually homeless too. There's crowded conditions and certainly low-income situations."

Any number of situations can render a person homeless. Sometimes a person will come to the peninsula for a job but the job falls through or they can't find or afford a place to stay, Lambert said. In other cases a family or individual staying with someone else gets kicked out or has to leave for some reason.

For other people, an unexpected financial hardship is the culprit.

"All it takes is losing a job or becoming injured," Moore said. "Any number of things can change a whole family situation."

Whatever the reason, it does happen -- even on the Kenai Peninsula. And when it does, there are few established places to go and people to turn to. The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and agencies that distribute food bank goods operate programs to provide food to those in need. But these agencies don't provide places for people to stay.

"I've talked to people in the parking lot that will stay in the soup kitchen all the time it's open because it's warm," Moore said.

Some agencies and church organizations do provide shelter. The Salvation Army in Kenai, which gives families priority over individuals, puts homeless people up in hotels for a few nights until they can find friends or family members to stay with. But money and hotel space are limited, so it's not always possible to help.

Envoy Craig Fanning of the Salvation Army in Kenai was up until 11 p.m. Friday trying to help a couple that had been kicked out by the friends they were staying with. The hotels the Salvation Army can afford to rent from were completely booked, he said. The two people were able to work out their problem with their friends and return for at least the night.

The Women's Resource and Crisis Center in Kenai provides shelter on a limited basis to homeless women and children. The WRCC operates a 32-bed emergency shelter and a 25-bed transition house for women -- and their children -- who are victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. The center is set up to serve people in those specific circumstances, but it does occasionally provide shelter to homeless women and their children.

"We're really the only shelter on the central peninsula, so from time to time we have homeless women come in that may not be a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault, and if there is space available we may allow them to stay for a specific time," said Heather Arnett, WRCC executive director.

But there is no shelter in the central peninsula for homeless men or displaced families. Typically they either spend the winter in Anchorage or get housed with friends or area families.

"We have a section of the population that literally bounces from house to house to house, where they have a couch or extra bed, wear out their welcome and move on," Gebhardt said.

Adults aren't the only ones that find shelter in this manner. Sofa surfing -- the term used to describe moving from place to place, staying with whomever has an empty bed or sofa to sleep on -- is practiced by a surprisingly large number of area kids, said Dennis Dunn, principal of Kenai Alternative High School.

"Basically it's a term that we picked up from the kids a few years ago," Dunn said. "It refers to when, for whatever reason, their home situation is such that they are not comfortable being there, and they will sometimes go from one friend to another, one circumstance to another. There's more than a few kids in this circumstance. I think the numbers are increasing, and the age of which it occurs is getting younger."

Finding a solution to homelessness on the peninsula is not something that can be done by simply waving a magic wand. Working to support healthy families is the biggest thing peninsula residents can do to combat the growing occurrence of sofa-surfing kids and teenagers, Dunn said.

"It's not about pointing fingers, and it's not about blame," Dunn said. "It's about helping folks take where they're at and do their best and hopefully improve their situation."

Jane Stein, president of Bridges Community Resource Network's board of directors, spoke of establishing a cooperative effort between area agencies and churches to provide a type of homeless shelter. Stein said she would like to pattern a program after one she has seen in operation in other states, where churches could take turns providing cots and serving meals for people without a place to stay.

Another option is establishing a fully-functioning homeless shelter on the peninsula. Fanning is looking into that possibility, he said.

"I don't have the funds or resources for it, but I am working on that," he said. "I'd like to see us put together a small shelter. We don't need a large, several-hundred bed shelter, but probably a five- to 10-bed shelter would be adequate for our community."

The idea isn't in any sort of planning stage yet though.

"At this point I'm looking for support for one in the community," Fanning said. "And to be honest, I'm not finding many people saying, 'let's do it.'"

There are many reasons for people to be against putting a homeless shelter in a community, he said, including people not wanting one in their neighborhood.

"There are folks that believe a shelter enables homelessness," he said. "Any reason you want to come up with, there are people that will back that. They believe people are homeless because they want to be. That is true for some folks, but not for the majority of folks.

"Most of us in today's society live paycheck to paycheck -- miss a check and you're homeless. The old days of professional bums that drift from community to community -- you don't see that anymore."

The creation of a homeless shelter would face other hurdles, aside from garnering community support. Funding would be needed, as well as a group or agency to run the shelter.

One other aspect to look at when considering a homeless shelter is serving all the needs of the homeless people.

"Often it can be a family where someone has lost a job and needs services for a month or two," said Arnett. "Also, an individual that is homeless may have other issues that need to be dealt with, like alcoholism or mental illness issues. You need to look at having some comprehensive service there to help people get back on their feet."

The prospect of being able to provide that comprehensive service is looking positive, Arnett said. Social services agencies in the area are already working together a lot more closely to provide joint clients with better assistance, she said.

Stein said commitment is the key.

"We need to do something, and we need to address it, we just haven't as a concerted project," Stein said. "We need to really work together and sit down and say 'we have to do this.'"

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