A group of Homer youth and adults camped out in a city park Saturday night to force a light on the often overlooked problem of homelessness in the community. The campers planned to bear temperatures slightly below freezing while sleeping in tents and cardboard boxes. The campsite was a gathering place for activists against homelessness.
The night’s campers came to WKFL Park layered in coats, gloves, scarves and head wraps. They had a fire, they had fresh homemade donuts, and hot drinks but they were still cold. And they wanted to emphasize what a similar night would be like for people who are regularly in danger of sleeping outside without those luxuries.
“I have had a lot of close friends who have done the couch hopping and being a teen in between and not having a solid place to stay every night,” said Casey Marsh.
Casey Marsh is a Homer High School Senior and she organized the campout for her senior project entitled “The Triple H’s of Homer.” The triple Hs stand for Homeless, Hungry and Hopeful. She wants to see the community step up to eliminate homelessness and says for that to happen the problem has to be dragged into plain sight.
“I hope that with them seeing how much the youth is involved and all the different age groups we have here they’ll realize that it is a community issue and as a community we need to work together to fix it,” said Marsh.
J.J. O’Rourke is with an advocacy group for homeless teenagers, Teens United for a Future, or TUFF Teens. She says it’s easy for people in Homer to overlook the homeless problem because the homeless tend to blend in.
“They don’t want anyone to know. They don’t want to [be] looked down upon. A lot of kids and adults are in their cars right now,” said O’Rourke.
O’Rourke says at the moment the most pressing need for homeless teens and adults are shelters. Especially for teens. The LeeShore Center in Kenai offers crisis beds for women and their children but there are no public shelters on the peninsula for kids under 18, or for families, and there’s nothing for homeless men.
Jane Dunn works in Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Students in Transition office in Paul Banks Elementary School. She helps homeless teens find the resources they need day to day so they can focus on school.
“I have just in the Homer area from Ninilchik south about 50 kids. District wide generally by the end of the school year we have about 253 on average, but this year district wide we’re about 33 percent higher than we were last year,” said Dunn.
According to Dunn numbers for the Homer area are up by 91% from this time last year and she stresses those are just the kids her office knows about.
“I know there’s a lot that I don’t know about right here at the high school,” said Dunn. “And it’s not just teens most of what I’m working with right now is families. The economy is really hard. Yes there’s jobs out there but they’re not jobs that can support a family.”
Some members of the Homer community are pulling together to offer some relief. Lieutenant Kristin Fankhauser is a pastor at the Homer Salvation Army and she’s a member of the Homer Homeless Action Committee, which began meeting this summer. The group has three goals.
“One is getting information out to the homeless of the services that are provided in town. The other one is to setup a safe housing network specifically for youth. A place they can go and couch surf but in a safe environment,” said Fankhauser.
And their ultimate goal is to establish a permanent homeless shelter. Fankhauser says they want to start with a temporary cold weather location and then build up from there. First they have to make a community needs assessment and then try opening a shelter inside the Salvation Army.
“How long that’s going to take us I don’t know, but that’s our first step: to do the community needs assessment and apply for grants to fund it,” said Fankhauser.
The committee meets the first Thursday of every month. There’s an email list residents can subscribe to for meeting times and locations.
Casey Marsh says her project is already making some headway. Lately she’s getting emails from Homer residents willing to give teens a place to sleep.