In some cases, houses of worship step in to help people keep their homes

Richard Whitney is the president of the Anchorage chapter of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

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Last year 3,000 Alaskans received help with rent and utilities from government sources. That number only shows a fraction of the need — countless others turned to friends, family, domestic violence shelters, and the faith community. This winter, Anchorage resident Dion Wynne was one of them.

After an unexpected illness prevented Dion from working, he sought help from the faith community. He reached out to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic organization that helps people with rental assistance.

Two volunteers with the small organization visited him at his home. Rachel Ireton sat with Dion at the kitchen table, a list of questions in her hand.

“Let me ask you some questions, and it’s for our records,” she explained then hesitated. “We have to… I’m not trying to be too personal, let me put it that way.”

Rachel asked Dion about his situation — how much income did he have, how much was his rent. Dion was straightforward with the answers and tried to explain how this happened: his leg got infected, the doctor amputated his toe, and he couldn’t work.

[Read Dion’s story: When homelessness is around the corner, even the helpers can become helpless]

“I really just want to get back to work so I can pay my own bills,” he said. “I would appreciate if you, or the church would give me this assistance this time.”

When Dion realized he would be out of job for longer than he anticipated, a social worker helped him apply for public assistance, like Food Stamps and Medicaid. But Dion wasn’t eligible for other government help to pay his rent. That’s why he turned to the faith communities.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society is funded through donations. Catholic congregations in Anchorage pass the plate during church services to collect money for them a few times a year. Other individuals donate, too.

If a person of any faith needs short-term financial assistance with rent or utilities, they can call the organization’s cell phone. One of the group’s 20 volunteers answers, learns more about the situation, and schedules a home visit.

The home visit is about more than collecting information, said Anchorage St. Vincent de Paul Society president Richard Whitney.

“It puts a very real face on the need. So often in our society when we think about the poor, we think about [them] as a problem. And too often that removes the humanity from the situation. It removes the face of the person,” he said. “And for the Vincentian that face is the face of the person, but that’s also for us, that’s going to be [the face of] Christ.”

Richard explains that for the volunteers in his small Catholic organization, helping people in need is a path for spiritual growth.

Like the federal rental assistance programs, the group will only give money to a person if the situation is sustainable. If one time help will get them over a speed bump, they’ll send a check to the landlord or the utility, or offer gift cards for food or gas. But if the person will be in perpetual need, then they won’t offer their limited resources.

The number of requests they receive varies by season — winter is the busiest — and they don’t have the financial or human capacity to help everyone.

“We might get 30 calls a week, and we can only do five because we’re a volunteer organization,” Richard said.

Once the group helps someone, they don’t ask anything in return. The person doesn’t need to pay them back. If they do offer, Richard puts in another request instead.

“Sounds kind of cheesy, but I like to say, ‘Will you pray for us?’ You know, that’s that’s the main thing and it’s totally free. And for us, I think that’s probably the most valuable thing that someone could actually give back to us. Just just pray for us and pray for our work and pray for the other people in need.”

When Rachel finished up the interview with Dion, he offered to pay any assistance back as soon as he was back on his feet. Rachel assured him it wasn’t necessary.

“We don’t ask that,” she said. “But that does happen, but it’s not a requirement…Would you like to say a prayer?”

Dion’s not Catholic, but he is Christian, and he thinks it’s God’s will that’s helping him through. Together, they prayed.

St. Vincent de Paul is not the only religious organization that offers assistance in Anchorage. St. Patrick’s can help with small amounts. Sometimes Shiloh Baptist does, too.

After the interview, Rachel spoke with Dion’s landlord and learned that she was willing to work with Dion and help him through the rough spell. In the end the organization gave $500. The amount helped Dion pay his rent for that month, but, what about his future?

You can find out the conclusion by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or NPR.

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

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