Where will I sleep tonight? What will I eat? Am I safe? These are questions some students have, when they should be focusing on geometry or writing an essay or even just showing up to school.
Homelessness is disruptive to a student’s education and the struggle to balance school and survival is not an easy one. And so the Northern Light Youth Shelter was inspired.
“Homeless young people are one of the fastest growing and largest segments of those experiencing homelessness in the United States, together with single mothers, and senior citizens. This is disturbing.” said Mariya Lovishchuk, executive director for the Glory Hole, “Young adults who experience homelessness are much more likely to become chronically homeless, are much more likely to engage in risky behaviors, and have a harder time “making it” in life. The resilience of students who are homeless and still manage to stay in school, manage to keep going, manage to think about their futures and function is truly amazing.”
The youth homelessness problem has come to the attention of many in the community; a partnership was formed between Northern Light United Church, The Glory Hole, Yakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School and the Zach Gordon Youth Center, with funding from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and the Denny H. Greene Trust, Lovishchuk said.
Pastor Phil Campbell of the Northern Light United Church stepped up with the donation of space. The Northern Light Youth Shelter is at the church, though Shelter Coordinator Hali Duran said she hopes youth are aware that it is not a faith-based program.
“Even though the church is generous in donating the space, we are not a faith-based organization and anyone can stay here,” Duran said, “Our values are separate from the church itself, though we are thankful for the space and services.”
The youth shelter, which opened its doors Aug. 23, had its first student stay at the shelter starting Aug. 27. The Yakoosge student stayed for five days at the shelter, located only blocks from the school, before moving into the Black Bear Apartments offered by Juneau Youth Services, Lovishchuk said.
“We opened the first night last Thursday,” Nels Sanford, also a shelter coordinator said in an interview Friday, “We didn’t get our first student until Monday, but he’s staying consistently and he’s going to get a degree and that’s awesome.”
Sanford and Duran are the people who run the day-to-day at the shelter and they have a lot of enthusiasm for the job.
Sanford grew up in Juneau and said his involvement in the community dates back to when he was 16-years-old and involved at the skate park. At age 19, he started working at JYS.
Duran is from Colorado but found her way to Juneau, as many do. She has worked in the nonprofit field before and also as an EMT, she said.
“I wanted, when I moved to Juneau, to jump into something more fulfilling.” Duran said.
Both saw the listing for shelter coordinator, applied and were hired. Now they work together to open the shelter at 9:30 p.m., close at 8 a.m., take care of the space, provide snacks, deal with paperwork and, Sanford said, “talk if they need to talk.”
Both shelter coordinators are young and in a good position to connect with youth at the shelter.
“My hopes are huge!” Duran said, “Our philosophy is dream big. We figure out ‘What is our ultimate goal and what do we need?’”
She said they have been discussing where they want the shelter to be in three years, then working backward, figuring out the steps they need to take to get there.
“What we need is more information,” Duran said. There are estimates of the homeless population in Juneau, but it is difficult to know the real numbers.
“We need to collect and cultivate more data and resources so we can better plan.” Duran said, “We realize how we need to prioritize to push in the right direction.”
The enthusiasm doesn’t come just from Sanford, Duran, Lovishchuk and Campbell, the community has been very encouraging and generous.
The grant from the Mental Health Trust supported building lockers for the students to safely store belongings, so while they are out during the day, students have one less thing to worry about. They know where they will sleep, they know where they can get a bite to eat in the morning and at night, and they know their belongings will still be right where they left them.
The shelter is really nice, Duran said. There are separate quarters for male and female students and a large kitchen. There is padding to sleep on and bedding, donated toiletries and snacks.
Community members have stepped up and have started donating toiletries, socks, underwear, healthy snack bars, fruits, vegetables and more. Monetary donations have also been made.
“I think the biggest thing is a positive attitude,” Duran said of what the community can do to support the shelter, “They can contribute their thoughts, ideas and positive energy.”
Physical donations can be made at the Glory Hole or dropped off directly at the Northern Light United Church, Lovishchuk said.
One question that could arise is why there is a need for a second, separate shelter catering to homeless youth, and Lovishchuk emphasized that it is very important.
“The Glory Hole is an emergency shelter. We are pretty much at capacity all the time. In the winter, we sleep about 50 to 55 people. We have 43 beds. Many young adults feel that the Glory Hole is not a good place for them to be. I do not blame them. It is often overcrowded and there is a lot of snoring. Also about 18 percent of the Glory Hole clients experience substance abuse and mental health issues. This can be intimidating, uncomfortable, and not conducive to finishing school.” Lovishchuk said.
Currently, students are referred to the shelter through Yakoosge and Zach Gordon Youth Center. The maximum occupancy for the shelter is 16, Duran said, but they are currently hoping to keep the number at nine to start, while they work out the logistics.
One student has been served so far, but Duran said she doesn’t consider it to be a slow start.
“It’s a process and it’s the beginning of the school year and our demographic ‚Äî there are a lot of external factors that are keeping them out of school.”
Campbell echoed that sentiment. “With the chaos of their lives, a lot of (the students) haven’t shown up to school yet.”
“Kristi at Yakoosge has people in mind,” Sanford said, “She’ll let us know when we are going to have someone new.”
With the basic needs of these students, whose lives are in transition, being a safe, dry and consistent place to sleep and a place to store their things, the Northern Light Youth Shelter has them covered and more with the hopeful and helpful staff and generous donations from the community.
“They simply need a stable place to be at night, while they finish school, and positive adult figures in their lives.” Lovishchuk said, Everyone involved has emphasized that it is a simple and open, accepting program. The intake process is designed to be as easy and user-friendly as possible, Lovishchuk said.
Referrals to the program are handled by Yakoosge and Zach Gordon Youth Center. Shelter hours are 9:30 p.m. until 8 a.m. every day during the school year, including holidays. Students can leave at any point, Sanford said, but they can only check into the shelter between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. on weekdays, 11 p.m. on weekends.