Covenant House seeks to help prevent sexual crimes

Covenant House in downtown Anchorage. (Hillman/KSKA)
Covenant House in downtown Anchorage. (Hillman/KSKA)
Homeless youth are often targets for human trafficking. That means they’ve been forced to trade sex to meet their basic needs, like food, clothing, and shelter. Covenant House, a youth shelter in Anchorage, aims to protect young people from the predators, but the facility used to inadvertently contribute to the problem. Now, they’re solving it. And it all starts with a door.

Download Audio

According to Covenant House International, about 25 percent of homeless youth are survivors of human trafficking. Alison Kear is the executive director of the program in Anchorage.

“Their soul is so in need of attention and love that any attention by someone can really allow them to be preyed upon,” said Kear. “Someone may say let me take you to get your nails done, let me take you to get your hair done. And suddenly they find themselves in a situation where they can’t leave.”

She says she learned about the severity of the trafficking problem about seven years ago during a presentation by the FBI and the Anchorage Police Department.

“And in this presentation they said the number one spot that young people were victimized or recruited from was Covenant House,” Kear said. “And when I got over my shock and anger and sadness, I was committed, as were they, to change that.”

Kear says part of the solution was creating a place where young people felt safe and wanted to hang out. The shelter’s old, dark, cramped facility near Town Square Park wasn’t exactly inviting. When the nearly 30-year-old organization built a new one about two years ago, they wanted input from the young people who use the facility on ways to get more kids in the door. One person told Kear to think about the placement of the –literal- door.

“We might have the courage to walk into your building, but there are people that watch us doing this,” said Kear. “But if you make this across the alley and you put a lot of cameras on there, then we know that we’re safe when we walk into your space.”

So that’s what they did. Covenant House employee Jenifer Lachance says she loves it.

“So it pulls the youth away from the traffic but it also allows us the opportunity to monitor who comes down this alley,” Lachance said. “And so when we’re seeing a particular vehicle come down this alley over and over again, staff become aware of it and then it’s something that we watch. And if we need to report it to APD, we will.”

Lachance leads me past the door toward the spaces where the kids hang out, like a music room filled with ukuleles and an art room stocked with supplies. We wander into an airy gym with a towering rock wall. Lachance says all of these spaces provide the youth with outlets for their stress and frustration.

“So a great example would be a youth who is feeling trapped because they are stuck here in the shelter, and they just want to leave,” said Lachance. “Instead of them having to leave and run around outside, this space allows them, if it’s late at night, let’s go to the gym, let’s go shoot some hoops, let’s go climb the rock wall. It’s a great alternative.”

Lachance knows about needing outlets. She first came to Covenant House more than a decade ago. She says she was an angry 15-year-old who had been sent to live with her aunt, and it wasn’t working out.

“Both my parents said, ‘We don’t want her.’ Which was heartbreaking for me,” Lachance said. “I truly felt unwanted, unworthy, and kind of forgotten about, to be honest. And the staff at Covenant House reminded me daily that I was worth it. And that I did mean something.”

She says she maintained her relationships with Covenant House staff even when she left Alaska for school and Americorps.

Kear says those are the types of relationships that will ultimately keep young people safe from traffickers. And the organization’s new building attracts three times the number of kids who used to go to the old place. Kear says they serve about 2,500 individuals per year – some just drop in, others stay the night. While they’re there they can get help finding a job or a jacket or a medical check up.

Kear says she can’t say for sure if the new resources and the new space are reducing the number of people who are trafficked, but….

“There is an uptake in us being able to catch the perpetrators,” said Kear. “There’s an uptake in us being able to engage a young person and keep them safe from it.”

More kids are walking through the door.

a portrait of a woman outside

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her Read more about Annehere.

Previous articleINTERVIEW: Martin Buser deals with blackout pain after fall on Iditarod Trail
Next articleSarah Palin shows at Trump rally despite husband’s accident in Alaska