Rural Outreach from an Urban Youth Shelter

By Sheila Parker, Event Coordinator

Recently, I had the fabulous opportunity to leave the road system for the first time thanks to a grant from the Pebble Fund through The Alaska Community Foundation.  This amazing trip took me to Newhalen, AK on the shores of the Newhalen River and Lake Iliamna.  I was representing Covenant House Alaska at the April 2012 Academic/Athletic Meet hosted by the Lake and Peninsula School District.  120 middle and high school students from 13 schools around the region came together to learn about youth homelessness, human trafficking, and service projects they could do in their communities to benefit homeless and at-risk youth.

Immediately I was struck by the beauty of the area, but I was so much more impressed by the students themselves.  These bright young Alaskans have so much potential and showed great leadership during the event, but it was very clear how easily they could get lost in the ‘big city’ of Anchorage.  When I asked them how many people they thought lived in Anchorage they answered with numbers like 20,000.  None of them could grasp that Anchorage was the largest ‘village’ in Alaska with over 300,000 people.  Even though almost all of them had visited Anchorage, they had no idea its size, or the dangers that could so easily fall on stranded young people.  Even a trip from the airport to the Alaska Native Medical Center was found to be much more difficult than they had anticipated.  While many of them said they could walk the seven miles between the two places, they quickly realized that may not be such a good idea at -10°!

The Village of Newhalen.

At each of my eight workshops, I asked for a volunteer.  Then I handed each of them a broken down cardboard box, a bag of items they could find on the streets, and an old blanket.  Later, we went outside and our volunteers were told they were homeless and to set up shelter.  While they were setting up their new ‘home’ I would steal some of their supplies while they weren’t looking.  Once they were safely inside their box, I would be an angry business owner or police officer who would make them pack up and move on.  All of this would happen with the rest of the group huddled together trying to stay warm in the spring chill.  It opened their eyes to just some of the realities and dangers of being homeless: fighting the elements, predators, hunger, and lack of resources.

Once we were back inside the woodshop where our sessions were held, we talked about how young people could possibly survive on the streets of Anchorage.  It was surprising to all of us how quickly some of them were willing to turn to criminal behavior to get the things they needed – food, shelter, or warm clothing.  Others were sure they would never have to do anything illegal to make it, but as we discussed everything they were accustomed to using each morning to get ready (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, makeup, etc), the food they consumed each day, the gadgets and toys they couldn’t imagine living without, they quickly realized how desperate they could become without them.

A number of the students had already heard of Covenant House Alaska (CHA) and knew some of the services we offered.  They were eager to hear more and to learn about why and how youth come to stay at Covenant House.  Many of the students were shocked to hear about the 4,000 youth CHA served in 2011, and were even more surprised when they learned 39% of those youth were Alaska Native with well over 100 of them coming from the Bristol Bay area.  It was hard for them to imagine youth homelessness in their village since it’s part of their culture to help each other, to look after one another, but in the ‘big city’ everything is different.  It was rewarding to help open their eyes to the risks youth can face when they come searching for opportunity in Anchorage.  Hopefully, these youth will be better prepared should they find themselves in a bad way if all their plans don’t go according to plan.

The best part was how excited they were about things they could do in their villages as service projects.  There were suggestions of penny drives, donating gently-used clothing, food drives, collecting winter gear, and even building a cardboard city where they would sleep overnight for a fundraising drive.  They also promised to share information about Covenant House with the rest of their community so that if any young person should become lost in Anchorage, they would know where to find resources to assist them.

This trip was Covenant House Alaska’s first foray into rural outreach and it was an incredible success with everyone involved learning so much about each other.  We hope to continue this important work so that no youth become lost in our great state.