In Wasilla, a three part program to help homeless teenagers operates out of a modest building not far from the city’s busy malls.
On a typical day at Gathering Grounds. The cafe shares a one story building on a quiet street with a thrift store, and a casual drop- in center for homeless teens who are looking for help.
A young man works the espresso machine and takes lunch orders at the two or three modest tables open to the public. What’s different about Gathering Grounds is that it is part of a three piece plan to get homeless, and hopeless, teens into a productive life. My House founder Michelle Overstreet says clients are expected to work
“Because it is not a place to hang out. They can come here do volunteer work or the food bank or somewhere else. But the housing piece really stablizes them to be able to show up to work on time and be prepared to learn.”
Michelle Overstreet is a former teacher. She started the organization 5 years ago, when she realized just how many 14 – 24 year olds were living in Valley streets.
My House has sort of a full service concept. The drop-in center a step away from the cafe is staffed with educational, health and employment services. A public health nurse and a case manager are on hand. A desk in the center is heaped high with bagels and donuts, a nod to the casual, welcoming atmosphere.
Ask Zach Simpson.
“I was living under a tree over there behind Carrs. And I came in just to see what it was about, and they eventually gave me a job in the cafe and it all went uphill from there.”
Zach walked into My House a couple of winters ago with a garbage bag of belongings over his shoulder and two 10 thousand dollar warrants on his back
“They helped me squash my two 10 thousand dollar felony warrants that I had out for my arrests. They helped me with all my court stuff. I ended up doing some time for my stuff, and got that done, and when I came back I had my job waiting for me.”
Since then, Zach has completed carpentry training, moved into his own apartment, and scored a full time job. He’s off drugs now and says he has a much better relationship with his family. Overstreet says that the transitional housing tenants are expected to stay focused on moving toward independence.
“We don’t have someone there supervising the kids at our housing. They’re responsible, they develop a rental history. They pay rent, and we expect them to follow the rules and police each other and they do a great job.”
Another young man, Jason Brayach tells me that starting at age 5, he bounced from foster homes in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Wisconsin, before being adopted and moving to Alaska. Then things soured.
“Cause living with my parents was out of the question. Because they pretty much spelled it out that they didn’t care. They dropped me off here in town at the Meta Rose center. I was pretty much hanging out at Carr’s for about three weeks after that.”
It was February when he found himself on the streets. He lived in shopping malls by day, outside by night before he found housing, and a hand at My House.
“But they had me in at ten in the morning, and by 11:30 I had my housing taken care of, I already had doctor’s appointments set up, to get everything checked out to make sure that everything was alright, and I pretty much had a job by that point.”
He’s got his own place now, is working, and planning his own landscaping business.
But behind the success stories, there is a backdrop of despair, Overstreet says.
“We have a dozen young people in transitional housing, age 18 – 24, and one hundred percent of them are survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence.”
She says that’s why so many teens run away to live on the streets.
“We have several young women in case management, who’s mothers sold their virginity for drugs. And one of them, I stayed very close with for a long time, and I asked her ‘did you ever talk to her about that?’ And she said, “yeah, she said I was just going to lose it anyway, so she might as well get something out of it.'”
And, in the Valley, former prisoners living in homeless camps pose another threat to teens, Overstreet says.
“But what we had last summer, was a group of 25 to40 year old men, who ran camps and recruited twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen year old children. A lot of them young women, to go into those camps and they wourld share drugs with them, and then we started hearing reports about them being in tents with 30 and 40 year old men, and they were making their own home movies. And they are guys that have been in jail for crimes against chilfren, who maybe are finding it difficult to find a place to live because of their background.”
Overstreet says that the drop – in center helps the state save the 60 thousand dollars a year per prisoner cost of incarceration.
“There’s no comparison. If we are keeping three kids out of jail, it pays for our entire case management program.”
She says the homeless teens just need a place to go where they have access to help. The drop – in center is that place.
“And when you walk in the door, you can feel the love. It feels good in here, because that’s the environment that they wanted to create.”
So far, 230 teens have come through the drop – in center door. Many have stayed in transitional housing, and moved on to their own places.
At present, there is housing for five boys and six girls. Overstreet says rents paid by My House tenants are paying for a second girls’ house that opens this month.