Youth start community talk about homelessness in Homer

Homeless in Homer event - (Photo by Shady Grove Oliver/KBBI)

Homeless in Homer event – (Photo by Shady Grove Oliver/KBBI)

Community members from across the Kenai Peninsula packed the Homer Theatre earlier this month for the Homeless in Homer film screening and discussion panel.

The Homeless in Homer forum was the first of its kind.

It was the brainchild of local participants in the statewide Lead On! Program, sponsored by the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Lily Johnson was one of the evening’s emcees.

“So, we went to Lead On! in November which is this giant, big conference that youth and our adult chaperones go to,” said Johnson. “We learn from all these great people and we sit down and come up with an idea that we want to address in our community. And we decided we wanted to address homelessness and that is where Homeless in Homer was conceived.”

When they came back to Homer, the students made a film highlighting youth, teen and student homelessness and the resources available to them.

Representatives from the R.E.C. Room, Haven House, the police department, several formerly homeless youth and others comprised the discussion panel after the movie. They all agreed on a few points – this problem is huge, not much is being done about it and it’s time for change.

Jane Dunn is the Homer area liaison for the Students in Transition program through the school district. She covers all schools from Ninilchik south.

She says she handles cases for 31 unaccompanied youth, or students who are not living with their guardians. She has 68 students total. And district wide, there are 246 students who are recognized as being homeless.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot more. I know that there’s a lot more that are not receiving services who are scared to come to me because they’re afraid of a label or something or nobody’s noticed they need help.”

Audience members and panelists spent more than an hour hashing out the issues that contribute to the severity of this problem.

For example, many homeless youth don’t get help because they aren’t living on the streets. They move from place to place each night, crashing with friends or where they can, and aren’t automatically identified as homeless.

Also, right now, there aren’t any dependable shelters for homeless youth. That’s according to Krista Schooley, who works with The Habitation in Soldotna.

“After three days, there’s nowhere on the Kenai Peninsula for any teens to go.”

There are also a number of factors that don’t have to do with shelter. Area food pantries aren’t open seven days a week, so kids may not have access to after-hours food for most of the week.

The list goes on and on. And up until now, the whole issue hasn’t really been talked about much.

During the community panel, someone in the audience asked the speakers what is being done to address it.

The answer? This is it.

Doug Koester, with the R.E.C. Room, says this is an incredible first step. And it’s important not to lose momentum now.

“I know you guys are all so into this issue and we need to push on from here. So, we really ask you to give us your email so we can get together as a group and take the next step because obviously this is just the beginning of it. Let’s keep it going and we’d love to see you all again at our next thing or at least on email so we can keep this tribe strong and help with this issue.”

For now, the Lead On! students are working with the Rec Room to collect school supplies and donations to go to local kids in need.

But that’s just a patch. Each speaker reiterated that this is the kind of problem that won’t be solved overnight. It will take the whole community coming together to help those who need it most and fix the problem once and for all.

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