Agencies, organizations work to count peninsula homeless

Right now, it’s impossible to say exactly how many people are homeless on the central Kenai Peninsula at any given time.

Different agencies have guesses based on the numbers they see. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Students in Transition program, which offers assistance for students with unstable housing, helps an average of 250 students across the peninsula during the school year. Love, INC, a Christian nonprofit in Soldotna that helps the needy, helped more than 90 families in need of housing. The LeeShore Center, a shelter that serves specifically women and children who are victims of domestic violence and provides emergency, education and transitional living services, helped 2,000 people in 2015, according to the nonprofit’s 2015 annual report.

And yet, on applications for federal financial aid for the homeless to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, only 69 people were identified as homeless individuals on the Kenai Peninsula, according to the point-in-time count report from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation.

Agencies and volunteers on the peninsula want to do better this year. At a community meeting Thursday at the Dena’ina Wellness Center convened by the Kenai Peninsula Journey Home, a community group seeking to fill the gaps in care for the central peninsula’s homeless population, representatives of various homeless service groups spoke to where they saw a need in the community.

Kelly King, who runs the Students in Transition program for the school district, said on average, the program identifies about 250 students during the school year, most of whom are in the central peninsula area, she said. However, that doesn’t take into account students not enrolled in public schools, students who have dropped out or the parents and siblings connected to identified homeless students, she said.

“When we’re talking about homeless numbers on the peninsula and I say 250, we’re really working with at least double that, just in my program alone,” she said.

Many students and their families are homeless, but others are on their own. So far this year, the district has identified 44 unaccompanied homeless youth across the peninsula, 26 of whom are in the central peninsula, she said. One of the most pervasive stereotypes of unaccompanied homeless students is that they ran away from home to avoid following the rules. That is almost never the case, she said. Many of them are living with friends on couches or in cars, which makes it hard to identify them as homeless unless they ask for help or someone notices what is going on, she said.

“It isn’t just that they don’t want to come home for curfew,” King said. “…There’s really hard things that they’re facing. That’s their reality.”

The Kenai Peninsula’s homeless don’t fit the traditional image of people sleeping on sidewalks or in doorways, said Jodi Stuart, who works in probation and is involved in the Kenai Peninsula Reentry Coalition, an organization seeking to fill the gaps for those emerging from prison. The coalition is addressing housing as its number one concern, she said, with the goal of having a way to identify each person who comes out of probation and developing a priority list for those who are most likely to be homeless and getting them into stable housing.

“The homeless of the Kenai Peninsula are the couchsurfers,” she said. “They are the double occupancies. They are the people that are living in cars in our Safeway and Fred Meyer’s and Walmart parking lots. These are the people that are living day by day in places that are uninhabitable, cannot be habitable. They have no running water. They are using Honeybuckets if they’re lucky.”

The 2015 point-in-time count, in which the number of homeless individuals are counted on a single day, identified 1,956 homeless individuals statewide, according to the Alaska Coalition on Housing and the Homeless. However, this number is flawed in a number of ways. First, only 15 of Alaska’s 352 communities participated in this count. Second, the count depends on the number of volunteers actually physically spotting homeless individuals and counting them, and if someone is living in a car or couchsurfing, it’s hard to identify him or her as homeless for the count.

The problem with poor counting accuracy goes beyond just the data. The HUD bases how much funding it allocates to the state for homelessness assistance on the point-in-time counts. Brian Wilson, the executive direct of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and the Homeless, said at the Thursday meeting that the state only received $740,000 to offer assistance to homeless individuals. The organization is making a concerted effort to improve the point-in-time count this time around, which will be held Jan. 24, 2017, he said.

“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. “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.”

By no coincidence, Soldotna’s Project Homeless Connect event will also be held that day. The annual event, now in its sixth year, brings together resources to help the homeless, such as hairdressers, laundry, veterinary services and health services, all for free, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. Alaska Cab and some local churches offers free rides for anyone who needs to get there.

The event provides free resources to everyone who needs them, said Kathy Gensel, who is helping to organize the event this year.

“Last year, the booth I was at was right across from the haircuts, and it was amazing to see the transformation of just somebody getting a haircut,” she said.

The event already has enough volunteers for its own operation, but volunteers could still help with the point-in-time count by walking around and counting the homeless in camps and various locations around the community, she said.

Severald dozen community members and those associated with the agencies present turned out for the event, which Wilson said was a good sign. Community engagement is an important step to eliminating homelessness, which he said is the goal of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and the Homeless .

Project Homeless Connect is planned for Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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