Homelessness among Kenai Peninsula Borough School District students is up 10 percent since this time last year. Due to lack of services and legal hurdles, many of those students are stuck in a cycle of couch surfing, camping or sleeping in their cars.
Anna stepped into a rundown singlewide mobile home on the side of her boyfriend’s house in Homer. She preferred her last name wasn’t used in this story.
“Most of the stuff’s molded,” she said of the inside of the trailer. “There’s just little black dots of mold…”
Anna is 18 years old and has been homeless on and off and most of her life. Since January, she’s lived with her boyfriend in the basement of his parent’s house. But they’re desperate to be on their own and she hoped they could move into the trailer.
Anna came to Alaska to live with her dad when she was 11 years old. Along with her sister, they lived in a tent. Her two brothers later joined them, and Anna said just making it day to day was a struggle.
“We had one meal a day,” she said. “If we wanted other food, we could cook oatmeal because the food pantry had oatmeal stuff. Sometimes they’d have cereal; they had this potato cereal stuff. Gross.”
Anna and her family went on to live in a car and a slew of motels and numerous other living arrangements. Anna lost contact with her dad and eventually ended up on her own.
At times, her situation was nightmarish, and she said she’s survived abuse and sexual assault from family members and others. Now, she struggles with PTSD and other mental health issues. Her experience has affected her entire life, even the small things as a kid growing up.
“You can’t invite people over because you don’t want them to see where you live, where are they supposed to sleep anyway?” she asked. “Where are you supposed to put them, and you don’t want to sleep over at other people’s house. Because what do you have to offer them?”
Jane Dunn is a students in transition liaison for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, and she’s seeing more students like Anna.
Dunn said the district has seen a 10 percent spike in homeless students since this time last year. While it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific reason for the increase, Dunn thinks lack of affordable housing is a factor.
“In terms of families, a lot of parents are having a hard time finding a house that they can afford, definitely on minimum wage,” she said. “Especially if you’re looking at only paying 30 percent of your income, which is ideal for your rent. There’s not a lot of jobs that support the rent that we charge.”
Housing homeless teens who are estranged from their family can be difficult. Homer’s domestic violence shelter, Haven House, only takes in youth who are accompanied by an adult or who are legally emancipated from their parents. And Haven House can’t offer teens short term solutions such as hotel vouchers.
Dunn says that forces the majority of homeless kids and their families to stay with friends. Others have to resort to camping or sleeping in cars, both of which present their own challenges.
“If you parked down at the beach for too long, you’re going to get the police called on you because it looks suspicious,” she said. “Where do you sleep if you’re going to sleep in your car?”
Safe Families for Children, a national nonprofit that has a chapter in Homer, is trying to help homeless teens by finding temporary host families in the area.
Lindsey Collins works for the volunteer-run organization, and she says the greatest need is for kids 2 and under and teenagers. Still, the organization needs permission from a parent or someone with power of attorney in order to place children in homes.
“They don’t sign over their rights, but they give permission for that other family to also have things like rights with school and for medical,” she said.
Collins said even if her organization had the legal authority to place every teen in need with a family, there aren’t enough host families who want to take in teens in the Homer area. She adds that there is a movement in town to build a youth shelter but nothing is off the ground quite yet. Even so, such an organization would face similar legal issues.
As for Anna, she said a youth shelter is something she wished she had, but now she’s ready to move on and become more independent. She’s about to graduate high school and will likely apply to college down the road.
“I’m finally done with this part in my life that’s been really, really hard and really stressful and I feel like once it’s over I finally have control over the rest of my life,” she said.
She said she’s no longer planning on moving into the trailer. She and her boyfriend plan to stay in his family’s basement and save up money this summer. Then they hope to rent a cabin in Soldotna from his family this fall.