Homeless kids in Juneau

Agencies estimate area has up to 300 children without homes

Posted: Sunday, November 01, 2009

When Shawna Jordan was 15, she walked out on her abusive father.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

That was three years ago in Anchorage. She is a former volunteer with at-risk youth herself, but in going back and forth between home and the streets, she became one of them and went to juvenile detention for 15 months.

In August, she moved to Juneau. Now, she attends the University of Alaska Southeast, majoring in biology and living at Juneau Youth Services' Black Bear Apartments - transitional housing for at-risk and homeless youths aged 18 to 21. She hopes to go on to medical school to be a trauma surgeon.

"I know a lot of older people might look down on people that are younger and are homeless, but I don't think they should judge them because they don't know what's going on in their life and what happened in their past," Jordan said.

Tonight, up to 300 kids and teenagers in Juneau won't have a permanent, safe place to sleep, according to local agencies' estimates. In the 2008-2009 school year, the Juneau School District identified 165 of its students as homeless. So far this school year, it has identified 75.

"Those are just the ones that are enrolled in school and that are homeless. So you know that there's probably an equal number that are not even enrolled, that have already given up on school," said JYS Executive Director Walter Majoros. Juneau Youth Services is a local nonprofit that focuses on providing mental, health, behavioral and residential services to children and families.

Dan Austin, general manager of the local nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul, also estimated the number at about 300. At least 60 kids rotate through St. Vincent de Paul's shelter annually, he said. Austin said the average age of a homeless person in Alaska is 9.

Teenagers are one of the hardest groups to keep track of; Austin estimates 150 are unaccounted for in Juneau.

That's a demographic JYS targets with its "mobile crisis unit," a van that drives around Juneau, going places kids are most likely to get into trouble and make bad decisions and helping them "not get into trouble and make better decisions," said Majoros.

JYS also has transitional housing for 18- to 21-year olds, emergency shelter for 10- to 18-year-olds, and was just approved by state public health licensing for transitional housing for 16- and 17-year-olds. It shelters runaway and homeless youth and those who are in foster or some other form of state care.

Rick Driscoll, program coordinator for Cornerstone Emergency and Transition services, one of JYS's residential services, said there are "hundreds of different scenarios" that can leave a kid homeless.

"A lot of kids leave their homes because there's some kind of domestic violence issue, abuse issue at home. Mom and dad are drinking; it's not a safe place for them to be. They couch surf for a while with friends and family, try and figure things out," he said. "Sometimes the kid needs to leave because things aren't safe for them, and sometimes it's the parent going, 'I don't know what else to do.'"

Once kids are in the shelter, JYS tries to reunite them with their families, meeting in groups, offering counseling and helping kids with emotional, behavioral or other kinds of problems.

Sometimes, family reunions are hard to facilitate.

One 16-year-old girl has been living at JYS's emergency shelter for more than two months. She slept at a friend's house for more than a week after she was kicked out of her relatives' home in Juneau. She said she's hoping to get into foster care until her mother gets out of prison in April.

JYS asked for legal reasons that her name not be used, as she is a minor in their care, and did not have her guardian's consent to use her name.

To put it simply, the girl said homelessness "sucks."

"Lately I've been feeling a lot of abandonment and stuff," she said.

She hasn't talked to several family members in a while, and has a strained relationship with others. In her group of friends at high school, she's the only one who's homeless.

"When you come here (JYS's emergency shelter) you realize there's more people than you think that are homeless," she said. "If someone my age ends up getting kicked out of their house ... instead of going to their friends, just come here. It's better than bouncing couch to couch."

While homelessness among young people is mainly a result of disconnectedness between a young person and his or her family, homelessness among families and adults is almost "always" caused by economic problems, Austin said.

"The primary reason people are homeless is because they don't have the money," he said.

The Juneau Homeless Coalition is also working to address the problem. In its 2006 plan to end homelessness, entitled "A Roof Over Every Head in Juneau," the multi-agency coalition outlines initiatives including increasing living wage jobs, the development of an "integrated assessment and referral system," more transportation assistance, like the Juneau School District's bus and cab program for students, and incentives for developers to hire and house those in need.

"The only stable, permanent answer to homelessness is to bring people's incomes and living standards in line with the cost of housing," it says.

Mariya Lovishchuk, executive director of local nonprofit shelter and soup kitchen The Glory Hole, said one problem in Juneau is that there isn't enough emergency housing for families.

St. Vincent's has emergency housing, but they have a waiting list.

"They (families) basically do not have any place to go. We have several families like that staying with us," she said. "We don't have space for them, but we're the borderline between streets and the shelter."

Lovishchuk said more housing needs to be built, especially single room occupancy units.

The city just recently approved a new zoning specification for single room occupancy housing, in large part to encourage affordable housing.

Despite Juneau's lack of affordable housing, Austin said, the city's affordable housing situation is no longer extreme.

"Frankly, our rental rates are no higher than Seattle and our wages are no higher either," he said. "In the past, Juneau was more expensive and we had higher wages. But today, we're more like any place else in the country."

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.

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