Where to go When There’s Nowhere to Go: How Covenant House is Fighting to Solve the Youth Homeless Crisis, One Kid at a time
Dash was a first year college student in Alaska when she found herself on the verge of homelessness, trapped in a family situation that was both dysfunctional and dangerous. “My family disagreed with my sexual orientation,” she said “they were actively trying to keep me away from the person I was in a relationship with, and were basically beating me every time they found out I’d been in contact with them.” One of her English professors at school had assigned students to write a narrative about their lives, and Dash wrote about her living situation. “I couldn’t really think about anything else,” she said “After the professor read my story, she pulled me aside and asked if I needed help. At first I said I was fine, then she said, ‘your story doesn’t have an ending’ and I started crying and told her I didn’t know the ending.” The professor took Dash to Covenant House Alaska, a homeless shelter for youth in need.
Part of the nationwide Covenant House family, Covenant House Alaska has been a mainstay in the community of Anchorage for almost 30 years. Chief Operating Officer Carlette Mack has worked in various capacities for nearly 23 of those years, watching their programs grow and expand as they work to engage and assist homeless youth in Alaska. “Last year, we served 700 youth through Covenant House and our partner programs.” She said.
While tracking the number of homeless youth in Alaska is difficult, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, Anchorage’s rate of homelessness per 10,000 people is 37.7, which is nearly double the national average. In the 2016-17 school year, the Municipality of Anchorage identified more than 1,300 youth as homeless, including those who were homeless with their families. Covenant House’s 2017 Impact Report states that 28 percent of homeless youth are victims of human trafficking, 46 percent have been sexually abused, 66 percent haven’t finished high school, and 75 percent come from homes where parents or others in their family abuse alcohol or drugs. They seek to mitigate those statistics by providing housing, counseling, medical services and a myriad of programs to assist youth in transitioning from homeless to self-sufficient. Since its inception in 1988, Covenant House Alaska has assisted more than 25,000 at-risk youth.
Mack calls herself a second-generation Covenant House employee. “My mom worked here for 13 years, and I always knew I wanted to go into social services,” she said “I’d initially planned to work in the foster care system, but as I got more involved in Covenant House, I realized this was where I wanted to be.” Mack started as a volunteer, working her way up to her current position. She now helps oversee their Youth Engagement Center, which opened in 2013 and offers 60 beds for homeless youth, as well as 24/7 drop in services. “We have food, we have showers, we have access to staff if they need to talk to someone, they can even have their mail delivered here.” She said.
The teens that come to the shelter are often runaways, some from a dubious foster care system, some from homes that aren’t safe. Some have aged out of foster care, and many are LGBTQ, ostracized or abused by their families. “We try to work with the foster care system and we actually were awarded a grant that allows us to shelter foster care kids,” said Mack “We also always try to reach out to the families and engage with them, invite them to come in for a meeting.”
The new facility has also created a robust partnership between other agencies. “We have partners onsite, which is something that makes Covenant House very unique,” said Mack “Our Executive Director, Alison Kear, is passionate about collaboration. When this building was designed and built, it was with the idea that we would invite partners in who could provide services.”
The Youth Engagement center has a medical clinic, which is staffed by a PA and a CNA, provided by Southcentral Foundation, one of Alaska’s biggest health care providers for Native Alaskans. “The PA provides a breadth of health services and can offer treatment to any of our youth,” said Mack “Southcentral Foundation also provides a Medicaid and benefits team, who come to the clinic and assist young people in navigating the application process for Medicaid and Denali Kid Care, an expansion of the Medicaid program for children in Alaska.”
Medicaid is the primary health care insurance for the majority of the youth at Covenant House. It is a resource they all need, as they would not be able to get regular health care without it. “I can remember the times prior to the Medicaid expansion, when it was much more difficult for homeless youth to qualify.” said Mack “They would sometimes have to make the choice between their health and affording food or a place to live. Being able to make use of Medicaid has alleviated that stress for them.”
Looming changes could have an impact on youth who utilize Medicaid, as well as those who make use of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.) One of Covenant House’s programs, Passage House, provides housing for pregnant and parenting teens between the ages of 17 and 21 years old. “They can live there up to 18 months with their children, and it is a life-skills and parenting education focused program. When the girls come into the program, they apply for SNAP, housing, and other assistance. Our goal is to work with them so they aren’t reliant on these benefits, but we also recognize the importance of those programs for them when they are in immediate need. It is a lifeline for these young mothers.” said Mack “Any reduction or elimination of these benefits would have a direct impact on their ability to provide nutritious meals for themselves and their children.”
Other partner programs include the Anchorage School District, which has a classroom onsite and provides youth who are, for various reasons, not in mainstream school, giving them a chance to catch up on missing credits and potentially graduate. The classroom also has a case manager that helps orchestrate housing and other benefits for youth and their families. “We had one young man who was struggling academically, and it turned out he just needed glasses,” said Mack “We were able to get them for him and he was able to finish school.”
For young women like Dash, Covenant House has been both a lifeline and a stepping stone to something more. Smiling, articulate and seemingly well-adjusted, she doesn’t fit the stereotype of what one might classify as homeless. “When I came to Covenant House, I had nothing,” she said “just my book bag and a change of clothes. I didn’t have any information like my birth certificate or social security number, my mom had always taken care of that stuff for me.” Dash said she came from a family-oriented environment and despite the abuse and difficulties, it was hard for her to be away from them. The welcoming atmosphere of Covenant House immediately put her at ease, giving her a feeling of home she’d thought was lost to her forever. “I actually lived here for three months before I even realized it was a homeless shelter,” she laughed “when someone mentioned it, I was surprised. It didn’t feel like what I thought a homeless shelter would be like.”
Now 20 years old, Dash currently lives and works at Mary’s Place, another transitional program for young women. Mary’s Place provides housing, again for up to 18 months, in more of a traditional roommate situation where four girls live together and learn independent living while contributing to a shared space. “I live there as part of the support staff,” said Dash “I don’t tell them what to do, but I’m there to help if they need it.”
Dash has also found her voice as an advocate for homeless youth in Alaska. She was recently selected to lead a youth task force, developed as part of the Youth Homeless Demonstration Project (YHDP), a HUD funded project in which young people provide feedback and input into potential programs being established to help homeless youth. “I was volunteering at Covenant House and putting in a lot of hours, I was so passionate about it,” she says “Other staff members saw I had the potential to lead, so I was offered that opportunity.”
The YHDP attends leadership meetings with different agencies, sharing their opinions and advising committees as to whether or not their ideas have merit with youth. They also review grants, and have even written grants for some agencies. Dash continues to move forward in her advocacy, and is now part of the Youth Catalyst team, which is similar to YHDP but operates on a national level.
Dash said the support of Covenant House and its partner programs are what have given her the confidence and drive to find her place in the world. “It’s been so beneficial to me. I know I will definitely keep working here.” She said. Future plans include starting up her own tribal art business and going back to college to finish her degree. Dash said she’s even started reaching out to her estranged family. “It took me a long time to find my voice,” she said “and when I did, it felt great, but also really weird. I told my family I loved them all, but that I needed to live my life on my own. I do see them at holidays and family events, but I can’t live there.”
While the circumstances that bring youth to Covenant House are often dire, their futures don’t have to be. Said Mack, “Our purpose at Covenant House is to build relationships with these young people and recognize that every one of them has amazing strengths. We aren’t here to tell them what their life path should be, we’re here to help them find that path, whatever it may be.”