Kenai Peninsula still struggles to house homeless

KENAI — Snow blew lightly across the threshold of the Friendship Mission when a knock came on the office door. Mary Anne Cowgill, the co-owner, made her way across the room to answer it and found two young men at the doorstep.

 

After a moment’s quiet conversation, she came back inside the office alone, and the two young men packed up into a car and left. One of the men had just arrived from Juneau, she explained, and had no place to stay, so he came to the Friendship Mission, which offers housing to adult men over 21 who don’t have anywhere to go. All the men have to do is be at least 21 years old and follow the rules of the house in order to stay.

“He was 19,” she said.

In the adjoining set of rooms, men of all backgrounds have found shelter when they needed it. Since Mary Anne and Graydon “Skipper” Cowgill opened the Friendship Mission in North Kenai in 2005, they’ve helped 930 men with housing and food. The couple, who moved to Kenai from Louisiana specifically to open the shelter, remember many of their residents’ names. The mission even hosted a wedding for a former resident once, Mary Anne said, producing a picture of a smiling couple.

“We’re like a family here,” Skipper Cowgill said. “We take all of our meals together.”

Men can stay as long as they need to as long as they have work or are looking for it. They have to follow the rules of the house: No drugs or alcohol, go to church on Sunday, come to Bible study in the evenings, follow curfew, no swearing, no borrowing money without permission, no animals and no baggy pants or do-rags, among other rules.

It’s not for everyone. Skipper Cowgill said he’s had to evict people who wouldn’t follow the rules before, which is hard, knowing they have nowhere else to go. However, the rules are the rules, he said.

“I’ve had people tell me they’d rather sleep in the snowbank than follow the rules,” he said.

But in general, many of the men are successful. Some people have called them years later to thank them for their work at the mission, providing a service that no one else is providing on the Kenai Peninsula, Mary Anne Cowgill said.

On the day the young man stopped by, they had empty beds. But they couldn’t give him one because he wasn’t of age. Though he drove out of sight back toward Kenai into the winter afternoon, unless he found a friend with a place to stay or rented a room at a hotel, there wouldn’t be anywhere for him to go. There is no emergency shelter for homeless men besides the Friendship Mission on the Kenai Peninsula.

Adult men aren’t the only ones with nowhere to go if they find themselves homeless any given night. There isn’t a youth shelter on the Kenai Peninsula either.

The LeeShore Center in Kenai runs an emergency shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence, but the parameters of the grant for its operations prevent the center from providing shelter for others outside those circumstances.

Kelly King, who coordinates the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Students in Transition program that provides assistance to students experiencing homelessness, said it’s a real frustration that there’s nowhere for them to go.

“It’s really hard when one of them asks me, ‘Well, where am I going to sleep tonight?’” she said. “And I have to tell them, ‘I don’t know.’”

In an average year, the school district identifies 250 students as homeless. They’re often not sleeping on street corners or sidewalks, the traditional image of homelessness; but usually sleeping in cars or couchsurfing. Their situations vary, but there’s only so much the school district can legally do, King said. That includes providing things directly related to education, and sometimes that includes a hotel room, but it doesn’t always include housing.

In addition, it’s hard to pin down exactly how many homeless people there are on the Kenai Peninsula. In the past, the number reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — which provides federal funding for homeless assistance programs — was 69. King’s program alone deals with significantly more individuals than that, and that doesn’t even count their families that aren’t officially counted by the school district, she said.

The numbers are generated from a count called the Point-in-Time count, which counts and documents individual homeless people during a specific window of time. In the past, the Kenai Peninsula’s count has not been accurate, a problem community groups have been trying to solve this year.

On Jan. 24, 2017, the same day as the sixth annual Project Homeless Connect — an event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in which homeless individuals can receive services like showers, hot meals and laundry service for free — agencies and individuals will also be ramping up efforts to count and document every homeless person they can.

The numbers are paramount for federal funding for homelessness programs. Brian Wilson, the executive director of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and the Homeless, said at a meeting in November that the state only receives $740,000 to help every person experiencing homelessness, which doesn’t stretch very far.

“When we plan this point-in-time count, we need to look at last year’s numbers and think, ‘Who are we missing?’” he said at the November meeting. “Because I can’t say it enough … every person counts. Every person counts, and that’s why we need to count every person. Not just the people who are easy to find … but those people who are in tents, those who are out somewhere where they’re not visible because they don’t want to be seen.”

An additionally complex part of the problem, which the medical community sees in greater depth, is widespread substance abuse and mental illness issues. Though anyone can experience homelessness, rates of substance abuse and mental illness are high among the homeless population. The demands of addiction or mental illness can often drain a person’s financial resources, leaving them on the lower end of the income scale. This shows in the payment mix of Peninsula Community Health Services’ behavioral health clinic, where 90 percent of the patients are on Medicaid, as compared to about one-third in the general clinic, said PCHS CEO Albert Wall.

PCHS provides behavioral health care but not substance abuse treatment. The state disburses funds for mental health care through Title 47 in a grant system, and PCHS’s grant is for behavioral health care, Wall said. The Cook Inlet Council on Addiction and Drug Abuse provides substance abuse care, as does the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s Dena’ina Wellness Center. Central Peninsula Hospital’s Serenity House provides inpatient substance abuse services.

Patients don’t always identify themselves as homeless, but when they do, PCHS tries to connect them with services and get them housing, he said. People become homeless for a variety of reasons, and one of the things Alaska’s health care system struggles with is getting a complete continuum of care in one place.

PCHS, a patient-centered medical home and major primary care provider, could provide many of the services people need, but the organization would need to line up the grants to fund all the services.

“I think community health centers are uniquely poised to provide a full continuum of care,” he said. “We can do it all.”

PCHS, Serenity House and the Cook Inlet Council on Addiction and Drug Abuse are working together on a grant to open a medical detox facility. The grant hasn’t been awarded yet, but Serenity House Intake Coordinator Shari Conner said in a previous interview that the group is optimistic.

Love INC, a Christian nonprofit in Soldotna, used to provide shelter for families in partnership with the Merritt Inn in Kenai, but had to close the program in 2013 due to loss of funding. The organization can still provide some rehousing services for families through a grant. The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation also provides vouchers for parolees and youth aging out of the foster care system with no set amount of vouchers, but it depends on how severe the need is, according to an email from Alaska Housing Finance Corporation spokesman Soren Johansson.

There’s limited affordable housing on the Kenai Peninsula as well. AHFC has 299 housing choice vouchers for low-income privately owned units, a number of which are set aside for specific life circumstances. That number is 115 in Homer, according to Johansson’s email. The Kenai Peninsula Housing Initiative also operates a number of rental facilities specifically to help keep people from remaining or becoming homeless. Their availability varies depending on vacancies.

The LeeShore Center in Kenai operates a transitional living facility which anyone can live in for two years. Most of the people who use it come from the peninsula, though some come from other areas of the state, said Cheri Smith, the executive director.

This year, the LeeShore Center’s emergency shelter served 160 women and children, which increased about 18 percent from the previous year, Smith said. They haven’t had to turn anyone away unless they were outside the parameters of the LeeShore Center’s grant funding, she said.

“We did find over this last summer (and) early fall, we were actually running over capacity,” she said. “We just got out our cots as needed.”

One of the challenges with the Department of Housing and Urban Development funding is what it applies to. The department in recent years has focused on rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing, and not every organization has those programs, Smith said. The funds are already stretched thin across the state, she said.

“Unless you have those programs, it’s hard to get your foot in the door, and once you do get your foot in the door, there’s only so much funding to go around,” she said.

The Kenai Peninsula Re-entry Coalition, a group aiming to help bridge the gap for individuals coming out of prison back into life outside, regularly discusses the challenges facing those coming out of prison, who often can’t get housing either because of the cost or because landlords may not want to house someone with a criminal record. The group brings together representatives from the Alaska Department of Corrections and multiple other agencies that aim to help house, employ or provide medical treatment.

One of the big struggles is where former inmates can go for housing. They’re required to provide an address where they are going in order to be released. However, from the Cowgills’ perspective, many of them give the Friendship Mission’s address.

“And then we never see them,” Skipper Cowgill said.

Jodi Stuart, who works in the probation office and works with the Re-entry Coalition, said probation officers can verify that the inmate gives a real address, but it’s hard to police them to make sure that’s where they’re actually living.

The group wants to set up a system which would identify those most at risk of being homeless and make sure they get priority for housing, considering factors like education, substance abuse and behavioral health. For example, someone with a known history of substance abuse or no job skills would be more at risk, she said.

“We’d be looking at those at the highest risk,” she said.

• Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion and can be reached at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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