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Vigil to highlight homeless youth problem in Juneau

School District: 162 students do not have permanent homes

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's difficult to focus on school when you're worried about where you're going to sleep at night, homeless advocates say.

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A candlelight vigil will be held at 4:30 p.m. today at Marine Park to highlight the problem of youth homelessness in the capital, said Jorden Nigro, director of residential services for Juneau Youth Services.

"The idea is to raise awareness that this is an issue in our community, and that it's not something that just happens in other communities," she said. "It happens here in Juneau."

The Juneau School District identified 162 students as "homeless" in the 2006-07 school year, homeless student liaison Kimberly Homme said. That figure includes students living in shelters, staying with family or friends, and those living in overcrowded environments, she said.

Know and go

• What: Youth homelessness candlelight vigil.

• When: 4:30 p.m. today.

• Where: Marine Park downtown.

• Why: To highlight youth homelessness in Juneau.

"That's a lot of kids really," Homme said. "I don't think a lot of people know the depth of the problem of students and families who don't have adequate shelter."

Of the 162 students identified in the district, 52 attended Juneau-Douglas High School, Homme said. And that figure does not include kids who have dropped out of school.

School officials identify most of the district's homeless students, and few students come forward to identify themselves, she said.

"That's why it makes us realize that there are probably more students out there who haven't been identified that are homeless," Homme said.

Not having adequate living arrangements can lead to more adversity at school, she said.

"Being hungry and not getting adequate sleep definitely affects their performance at school," she said.

For other homeless youth, school can be one of the few things they can come to rely on, Homme said.

Mike Meersman, teen advocate for Zach Gordon Youth Center, said youth homelessness is a "hush-hush" issue because there is a certain amount of shame associated with it.

"I don't think it's a topic that's talked a lot about, because teenagers don't like to talk about it either," he said. "They are really ashamed of it, because it is kind of the catalyst for a lot of other things that can go wrong in their lives."

One of the main aspects of teen homelessness in Juneau is kids "couch surfing" at their friends' homes.

"The reason why kids couch surf is because they don't have a safe environment at home, and that is for quite a few different reasons," Meersman said.

Many kids choose to couch surf because of domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse they experience or witness, he said.

Not having adequate housing makes everything more of a struggle for a family, especially the children, Nigro said.

"If you're homeless, everything else that you do is impacted by that," she said. "It's hard to study for a test for school if you're worried about where you are sleeping that night. If people don't have housing, everything else can fall apart."

Today's vigil will include an introduction to the issue, a poem written by a homeless student, and an address by Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau,. Candles will be provided, Nigro said.

"We really want other people in the community to know what a big issue it is," she said.

• Contact Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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