Nobody is more enthusiastic about the idea of working another decade than 63-year-old Mike Ricker, who dreams of driving the ice roads of the North Slope until he’s at least 73. For now, Ricker is one of many in Juneau experiencing long-term homelessness because his Social Security benefits aren’t enough to cover basic expenses.
Ricker is part of the PATH Program at the Glory Hole, Juneau’s emergency shelter. Because it is an emergency shelter, residents can stay only 60 days in a year. Not everyone finds steady housing in that time period.
One option for patrons who have reached that limit is to enroll in the PATH program, which requires patrons to perform community service work, address their mental and physical health, and set goals for overcoming the hurdles that keep them from finding housing.
Glory Hole outreach coordinator Kathleen Nyssen, who took on the role just this week, will be meeting with PATH Program participants later this week.
“We’ll sit down to identify barriers to finding a home,” Nyssen said. “Whether it’s employment, mental health and wellness or physical health and wellness.”
Nyssen said in March about 16 patrons participated in the PATH Program, which requires a personal action plan with goal-setting and weekly check-ins, five hours of community work each week, and wellness activities like book club, yoga, communication skills, acupuncture and more.
“When we meet one goal, we’ll work to move on to the next level. In that way, we make a path to a self-sustaining system to life. They’re on the path to wholeness,” Nyssen said.
On Wednesday, Ricker and Daniel Brady participated in a regular cleanup of downtown areas, including areas like Pocket Park, Marine Park and the Glory Hole’s surroundings.
“I’m just happy to be working,” Ricker said while pinching cigarette butts out of a planter and dropping them into a yellow garbage bag. “I like working.”
Brady, who joined Ricker with an additional garbage picker, had suggested before they embarked on the afternoon’s job that many of the people staying at the Glory Hole want to work. He said he thought there ought to be a program set up for day labor.
When interviewed about the Glory Hole’s book club, Ricker said that age can be a barrier to getting a job. He also said, though he has now earned all his credentials for commercial driving, including carrying passengers, the only way to get experience is for someone to give you a chance.
“I’m a truck driver with a license, but I don’t have any experience,” he said. “I’m just looking to get a job, but I need help with that. Any kind of driving job, I can do.”
Whatever the barrier, be it employment or mental or physical health, Nyssen said the PATH Program is designed to help patrons overcome.
During the first interview, a patron designs a plan of action that includes five to seven action items every week. Those items include at least one that is community service-based, either for the Glory Hole or Juneau. Patrons meet with the outreach director or executive director on a weekly basis to check progress.
Cleaning downtown Juneau is one of the community service work options. Others include working in the kitchen or the garden at the Glory Hole. More options can be authorized by the outreach coordinator. These jobs are on top of regularly assigned daily chores.
PATH Program participants have been required to earn a GED, licensure or training; complete applications for housing assistance; apply for public assistance, Social Security disability or other public resources; improve their mental and physical health; and prepare for job applications.
Nyssen, whose background includes training in early childhood care, said the process is often referred to as “scaffolding.”
“We build the muscles, help them to be independent,” she said, highlighting the program’s goal to give patrons the tools they need to succeed on their own.
Each plan is personal, with unique goals suited to the abilities and needs of the person.
The program is intended to help patrons find and maintain steady housing, but the path for each person will be different. Glory Hole executive director Mariya Lovishchuk said with the PATH Program and a partnership with St. Vincent de Paul, the number of people moving into permanent housing has at least doubled.
“We have been really trying to change the culture,” Lovishchuk said. “We want to make this not a place of despair ... we want to provide people with a space that can allow them to be better and have a better life.”
That spirit is alive and well in Ricker and other PATH Program participants.
“I’m trying to do all I can do every day,” Ricker said. “Be all I can be.”