For those who held candles Thursday night in Soldotna’s Farnsworth Park, the fast-falling snow was a reminder of what coming months could hold for the 185 youth in the Kenai Peninsula School District’s Students in Transition program. Those students “lack a stable, adequate, and permanent place to sleep at night,” according to an email from school district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff. Instead, they live in motels, hotels, campsites, vehicles, or other peoples’ homes — shielded from the snow by barriers as tenuous as a friend’s good will.
Soldotna attorney Dale Dolifka, who has attended the school district’s candlelight vigil for homeless youth all six years of its existence, said the problem of youth homelessness has attracted more attention since the vigil began.
“We (Dolifka and his wife Rhoda) were at the first candlelight vigil, and there were probably more homeless there than members of the community,” Dolifka said. “…We remember the first one very well, and it was actually quite sad.”
Thursday night’s vigil attracted around 90 people and featured speeches by school district officials and local pastors, as well as music from singer and guitarist Vickie Tinker and George Holly. Some speakers offered prayer, others statistics.
According to Erkeneff, 131 of the program’s 185 homeless youth live in the central peninsula. District-wide, 135 live with a family, while 50 are unaccompanied.
In Nov. 2014, Students in Transition had 147 enrollees, a number that rose to 248 by the end of the year. Since 2004, end-of-year enrollment numbers have fluctuated between a low of 201 in the 2008-2009 school year and a high of 301 in the 2010-2011 school year. According to Erkeneff, the 20 percent rise from last year’s November count could be attributed to this year’s harsher winter.
Students in Transition homeless liaison Kelly King said referrals to the program increase during colder winters because a more dire need makes homeless students more apt to identify themselves. Students in Transition doesn’t search for homeless students in the district, she wrote in an email, but discovers them through referrals by school nurses, councilors, teachers, local aid agencies, parents, and students themselves.
“Sometimes families and students are working really hard to make it work and just keep afloat in whatever circumstance they are in,” King wrote. “When really cold weather sets in, it can be the tipping point that leads them to reach out for assistance and support.”
The assistance the program provides for homeless students is “specifically related to education – making sure students in transition have the same access to school as their peers in permanent housing, as well as the supplies needed to attend and succeed,” King wrote.
“All our program supports and services are geared to keeping kids in school while their home situation is kind of up in the air,” King said. “We do things like transportation to and from school, enrollment in the school lunch program, school supplies, school lunch products, basic school clothing, and other needs on a case-by-case basis.”
In a later interview, Dale Dolifka spoke of a statistic he thought was missing from those listed at the vigil: the specific number of students who are neither economically impoverished nor in legal trouble, but find themselves leaving a dysfunctional household to live with friends or family instead. Dolifka said that these children are “every bit as homeless as the kids whose parents lost their jobs and live out of a car,” although it is more difficult to recognize them as such.
“It’s typically a deal where a kid goes to school, friends hear what’s going on in the home,” Dolifka said. “They get kicked out of the home. The system — even the school system, and certainly the court system, and the public welfare system — never hears about those kids. They’ll go home with their friends, and they’ll just stay there.”
Dolifka said that not only institutions, but the public is also likely to overlook children in this precarious situation, which doesn’t resemble the typical image of homelessness.
“In a community like this, because you don’t see the homeless on the corner begging like you would in Anchorage, I think a lot of the community — very intelligent, well-meaning people — might not even believe it exists,” Dolifka said. “…These kids that are homeless and are couch-surfing, if they go to a ball-game and people see them, they look normal, they’re good-looking kids, they’re dressed well. No one would have a clue those kids are homeless. You’re not seeing them on the street begging. But they’re still homeless because they’ve been kicked out the house, or they had to leave because daddy’s beating momma.”
Dale Dolifka and Rhoda Dolifka (who missed Thursday’s gathering for a Kenai Peninsula Food Bank board meeting) were given an award at the vigil for their work with homeless youth. Dale Dolifka said he first noticed the problem of youth homelessness while working in the legal system as a guardian ad litem — a court-appointed observer and advocate for the welfare of a child involved in a legal case. Currently, he said the couple is hosting two homeless youth.
Dolifka said that while local homelessness is an easy problem to overlook, people are often generous in trying to meet a need once they become aware of it.
“This is such a giving community,” Dolifka said.
Examples of local generosity were not hard to find this week. In preparation for Thursday’s vigil, residents at Heritage Place in Soldotna hand-made 13 fleece blankets for students in the program. They presented them to Tricey Katzenberger, the creator of non-profit aid group Bear Hugs, who in turn handed them over to the homeless youth along with backpacks and stuffed animals.
The seniors spent plenty of time, and money from their own resident council fund on the project, said Heritage Place Activities Coordinator Audrey Wahback. “The residents wanted to do something that they could really make that was from the heart instead of just purchasing,” Wahback said. “They started making them right away. They were making them between meals.”
Katzenberger, who has taken in several of her children’s friends who are currently homeless, said working through Bear Hugs to provide backpacks and other essentials is an extension of the work she has already done. Bear Hugs donated to children and families affected by the wildfires across the state this summer.
“It went hand in hand with helping foster children and helping with the wildfire victims, and really anybody in need,” Katzenberger said. “Our kids are growing up and living with the homeless families. I mean, they go to school with them and most of us aren’t aware of that, and it’s really important to me that my kids are aware of what’s happening in the community.”
Kenai Peninsula College faculty member Steven VinZant and student Adriana Walsh, two attendees at Thursday’s vigil, recently started a non-profit called Hardship to Kinship that manages material donations to the homeless.
“Our aim is to generate a facility to handle the products,” VinZant said. “Also a storefront to generate cashflow, dealing in used clothing and apparel, or stuff that the program can’t use. Because people give lots of stuff. I found out that second-hand stores on the peninsula take their surplus stuff to the dump, and that’s disheartening, because there are people who could use it.” Walsh said the storefront could also be an employer for homeless people.
When VinZant’s children were going to school — around 15 years ago, he estimated, before the Students in Transition program existed — he discovered the kind of homelessness described by Dolifka.
“I had teenagers. And when you have one teenager, you get more,” VinZant said. “They just sort of come. I had four teenagers in all who were living in my living room. They went to school with my kids, they came home with my kids. For some reason or other — I didn’t want to pry — they had problems at home. I told them that as long as they were good, they went to school, there was a spot on my couch. So I’ve known about this problem for a long time.”
In recent years, however, VinZant said youth homeless has become more prevalent, a change he attributes to the peninsula’s increased population.
“And it always increases towards winter,” VinZant said. “Things start getting harder. The air at home often gets a little thick and stale. Tempers flare. Pretty soon they’re afraid to go home.”
Students in Transition operates under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, through which it receives funding in federal grants based on the number of recognized homeless children in a school district. King said these grants usually bring around $15,000 each year.
“Those are generally used up around Christmas time, but because this year we’ve had an increase in identification, those funds were used up in October,” King said. “So from now until the end of the school year, we’re dependent on donations to help support the services we provide to students in our district.”
In addition, King said donated money and grant money play different roles in the program.
“Our grant funds are kind of strict about what we can spend the money on,” King said. “The donations account we have a little more freedom with. For instance, we had a child with diabetes who needed a cooler pack to bring her insulin to and from school, and we were able to purchase that for her. There’s a variety of miscellaneous needs we can address.”
At the vigil, Erkeneff announced that an anonymous donor had offered to match up to $10,000 in donations to Students in Transition until December 18. Vigil attendee Sheilah-Margaret Pothast, a teacher and student council leader at Skyview Middle School, said she would be contributing some of this money.
Pothast is raising money at her school with a penny-war: a competitive fundraiser between the 7th and 8th grade classes in which penny donations earn points for a teams, while donations of higher coins and paper bills subtract points from other teams.
“I came to the candlelight vigil three years ago, and it was kind of a moment… where something moves you,” Pothast said. “As a teacher, I will encounter kids periodically where they say something or share something with me that helps me know better what their home situation is. It is something that really hit me.”
Other donations include one made at the vigil by District O Senator Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) and one that Kenai Central High School’s leadership class will raise with a silent auction and spaghetti feed on Dec. 4 from 6-7:30 p.m. Donations can also be made online. Dolifka said he believes the $10,000 matching donation cap will be reached.
“We will match that,” Dolifka said. “I have no doubt whatsoever in my mind that that will be matched quickly.”