Statewide that year, more than 550 kids were in the direst of circumstances, with no adequate shelter.
School districts define homelessness according to federal law, which recognizes four categories: Living in a temporary shelter, staying with friends or relatives, living in motels or hotels, and no shelter at all.
Juneau had more than 200 homeless youth under the age of 18 in 2010-2011.
Northern Light United Church offers a shelter to house those transitioning into adulthood from unstable living situations. Hali Duran is a coordinator.[quote]“They’re really nice, they’re very driven and inspired individuals, they just have some misfortunes that they’re trying to deal with,” she says.[/quote]
Duran says the kids who come there should not be stereotyped as hopeless.
Shelter capacity is 16, eight boys and eight girls. The girl’s dorm is shared with office space for coordinators, who work from a computer, but don’t have a phone yet.
A full kitchen and donated food, storage lockers, school supplies and sleeping pads make the space ideal for temporary student housing. The space was modified to function as a shelter thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
The project has two shelter coordinators and three high school site coordinators who work at Yaakoosge Dakaahidi, Thunder Mountain, and Juneau Douglas high schools. Thirty volunteers have signed up to be on call.
Duran says the shelter is designed to help young adults who are too newly independent to be considered what she calls “chronically homeless.”
“You don’t necessarily want a student between the ages of 18 and 25 around chronically homeless individuals,” she says.
Duran considers the people who stay at the shelter her peers. The focus is to relieve them from the stress of finding a place to sleep at night so they can do better in school.
“We want it to be a place you can walk in and hang out for a bit, wind down and then go to sleep,” Duran says. “Or, if need be, get their homework done.”
The shelter grew out of conversations between the Rev. Phil Campbell, of Northern Light United Church, and Glory Hole Director Mariya Lovishchuk. The Glory Hole houses chronically homeless individuals. Lovishchuk says the younger homeless need better attention as they step into adulthood.
“We have a big gap in Juneau in terms of providing services to people who are aging out of foster care and who are aging out of other services and who are technically adults, 18-24,” Lovishchuk says.
Homelessness is fairly common for young people who age out of foster care. Casey Family Programs is the largest operating foundation in the United States focused on foster care and improving the welfare system. In a 2005 report, hundreds of young people who aged out of foster care were interviewed. Twenty-two percent said they had spent at least some time homeless.
Since the Northern Light Shelter opened in late August, there have been fewer clients than expected. Doors are open from 9:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and some nights nobody shows up. Pastor Campbell suspects an increase will occur this winter.
Campbell says the shelter does not discriminate based on race, religion, or sexual orientation. Students must be drug and alcohol free, and between the ages of 18 and 25.
“It’s a welcome opening environment and there aren’t requirements, there’s not judgment,” Campbell says. “What we want to do is provide a safe place.”
Many of the students referred to the shelter are from Yakoosge Daakahidi, Juneau’s alternative high school. More than 60 of the 148 students are reportedly homeless. About six have no shelter at all. Supervising Site Coordinator Kristi Smith says she makes sure eligible students know exactly where to go.
“The students who I get referred I will physically take them up to the church, introduce them to Phil,” Smith says.
Northern Light Shelter was senior Allen Pitts’ only option.[quote]“Family kicked me out on the streets and my friends kicked me out on the streets. I had nowhere to go. But my teachers told me about it, about the Northern Lights,” he says.[/quote]
Now, he says, keeping his head above water is easier. He’s currently staying at the Juneau Youth Services Transitional Living Program. Pitts says TLP teaches him skills to stay out of homelessness.
“More stable. Definitely learning how to spend my money more efficiently instead of spending it on stuff I don’t need,” he says.
TLP requires that 30 percent of tenants’ income be used as rent, or, if they’re unemployed, they can make it up by doing chores. It has other requirements too, like the strict prohibition of illegal substances.
Pitts wasn’t accepted into the program at first. For Site Coordinator Kristi Smith, this is precisely where Northern Light Shelter fills a need. So it’s surprising to her that there aren’t more students attending the shelter.
“We were hoping we’d have a little bit more turn out. But I think it’s slowly is catching on,” Smith says.
Part of the problem might be that homeless youth are hesitant to admit they need help.
“It’s kind of like a kept in thing,” says senior Penn Lamb, a former tenant of the shelter. Lamb says she left home to escape an unstable living situation with substance-abusing family members.[quote]“I remember when I was kicked out I came to school crying and had to hide in a room. I didn’t want anyone else knowing that I felt like I was going to have to live on the street,” she says.[/quote]
Lamb says she thinks of the shelter differently since she’s stayed there.
“Beforehand, I always thought that it was for like older, kind of hobo people,” she says.
Smith understands that.
“These kids, I understand why they don’t want to stay at the Glory Hole. And so we’re trying to definitely find that something that fits that gap of students who are right there in the middle,” she says.
Shelter for homeless students younger than 18 is hard to find. The Glory Hole has limited space for families and often refers them to St. Vincent De Paul’s Transitional Living Apartments that have a 15 family capacity. Minors with difficult home situations often can only turn to State of Alaska services like foster care.