Shop with a Cop highlights family homelessness in Anchorage

Lilly shops with Officer Bonnie Charles for Christmas presents for herself and her family. Hillman/KSKA
Lilly shops with Officer Bonnie Charles for Christmas presents for herself and her family. Hillman/KSKA

For the past 15 years, the Anchorage police and firefighters have donated money to the Shop with a Cop program. It gives disadvantaged children the chance to buy gifts for themselves and their family members for Christmas. But  it also highlights a problem in Anchorage – families experiencing homelessness.

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A group of police officers and fire fighters wait near the entrance of Fred Meyer in Anchorage as dozens of children file in. The adults are about to take the kids Christmas shopping. Eight-year-old Lilly pairs up with Officer Bonnie Charles and they push their cart toward the toy aisle.

“What kind of toys do you like?” Charles asks Lilly.

Lily thinks for a bit, glances at her grey Hello Kitty t-shirt and says, “Hello Kitty toys.”

“I think we can find some of those,” Charles responds confidently.

Lily is shopping for herself and her three siblings. First she picks out a Nerf gun for her brother Connor but as soon as they move to a different aisle of toys, she quickly changes her mind.

“Cause Connor really, really, really likes cars,” she says after choosing a red remote controlled pickup truck.

Many things tempt her, and Lilly jumps from one shiny object to the next. She picks out a Barbie pool for herself, Hello Kitty long forgotten. Moments later she changes again and settles on a child-sized guitar.

“I had a guitar once and then my dad had to put it back because we were running out of food so he had to put it back. Then he got a lot of money and then he could buy food. Yay!”

Lilly lives at the Salvation Army’s McKinnell House with her siblings and their father. The emergency shelter is the only temporary housing that takes in single dads and their kids. It provides hotel-like rooms, meals, and a group playroom and lounge. They also teach classes on financial literacy and parenting skills.

Diana Gomez is the administrator of the house. She says families are only supposed to stay in the 16 units for 30 days, but many stay longer so they can save up money for permanent housing.

“Our goal is always that they will not go from shelter to shelter but they will go to their own apartment.”

Carmen Springer with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness says 80% of the homeless population is only homeless for a short time. The most common reason is the cost of housing exceeding people’s incomes. Other causes are one-time events, like major illnesses in the family or lost jobs.

“More people than often like to admit it live only a couple pay checks away from homelessness and we have a very limited safety net both here and across the country.”

Springer says different programs, like rapid re-housing and rent subsidies, help get people back into homes quickly, and they usually don’t become homeless again.

She says it’s hard to have an accurate count of how many families and individuals are homeless. Some services count how many people they help and report it to a common database. Others don’t. And the numbers fluctuate by season as well.

Back at the store, Lilly finishes her shopping then thinks about the absolutely perfect gift for her family.

“A Barbie house that you press the button and then it turns in a real house that you can actually go in. It’s a clubhouse. But it’s not real life. Though.”

She and Officer Charles set off to get their gifts wrapped.