In June, Covenant House Alaska broke ground on its historic and innovative plan to build 22 micro-unit apartments for youth experiencing homelessness. We sat down with Executive Director, Alison Kear, to learn more.
Q: Alison, what an incredible time to be a supporter of Covenant House Alaska. We just broke ground on 22 micro-unit apartments on this very footprint on 755 A Street. Can you expand on this for our community?
A: When we built our Youth Engagement Center in 2013, it really transformed our space from just basic shelter services to a space where our community partners could provide all the other services youth need to become healthy and stable. This includes healthcare, counseling, a high school classroom, job internships, case management, enrichment programs – to name a few. But even then, we knew we would eventually need to evolve our model of care even further to bridge the gap between shelter and stable long-term housing.
It’s hard for young people to rent an apartment of their own without any rental history, credit history, references, etc. But through the Bridge to Success project, Covenant House Alaska, in partnership with Cook Inlet Housing Authority, is in the process of updating our Youth Engagement Center to create 22 new on-site “micro-unit” apartments to serve young people ages 18 to 24. This allows a young person to move seamlessly from shelter, to apartment living. They supportively gain independence, and ultimately cross that bridge toward securing their own permanent housing – successfully launching them into adulthood.
Q: What is the goal of Bridge to Success, and how does it help vulnerable young people?
A: Young people experience homelessness for a variety of reasons—they have often endured repeated trauma and have been failed by the people who were supposed to protect them. This puts them at risk for exploitation, trafficking, abuse and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Many of our youth simply never had a stable adult around who consistently did the laundry, made meals, cleaned their space, maintained a job or healthy relationships. It’s unrealistic to think that we can move a young person from the streets to an apartment and expect them to know how to manage a household. However, our youth are smart, resourceful and they want to learn. Bridge to Success provides the longer runway young people need between leaving the streets and maintaining full independence, and increases the population of youth who exit homelessness permanently.
Our goal is for Anchorage to be the first city to achieve “functional zero,” meaning we are effectively housing youth faster than others become homeless. This doesn’t mean that a young person will never experience homelessness. It means we have safety nets in place to ensure that any experience of homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring. We know this is ambitious, but we truly believe that Bridge to Success is a long-term solution to achieving functional zero and creating a positive societal impact for generations to come.
Q: Why is Bridge to Success being nationally recognized as an innovative project?
A: Honestly, there are a few reasons. We are pioneering a new type of housing that no one has really done before. We are building housing on the same footprint as our Youth Engagement Center, decreasing emergency shelter beds as we increase long term housing options. We have spent many years with the support of our community building a model of care that creates a long runway toward independence, and these micro-units are only extending it. Not only will we take care of the basic needs of our young people to get them through the night, but we will be the safety net through their adolescence and into young adulthood as they pursue their full potential.
Given the high number of young people in Alaska experiencing homelessness and the on-going crisis, current housing resources are insufficient to fully address the challenge. Covenant House Alaska is leading efforts to move from fragmented programs toward coordinated, system-level responses to youth homelessness. We are an organization that wants to solve problems, and the nation is watching as we break down barriers on services provided to unhoused young people.
Q: How does this help the future of Anchorage?
A: Young adults are the fastest growing population of homeless across the United States. One out of 10 young people lack stable housing. Without the right intervention, these young people are at risk of becoming part of the chronic adult homeless population. Not only is this devastating to each young person, it is very costly to society. Every day spent on the streets, in camps or in unsafe structures is another day a young person is traumatized and vulnerable to exploitation.
By providing a continuum of care that includes stable housing, we provide a critical component of successful long-term permanent housing. This is a proven upstream investment Anchorage needs in order to avoid adult homelessness and create healthier generations to come.
Q: We keep referencing micro-units and services. Can you tell me specifically what this looks like for our young adults who will be housed there?
A: Each young adult will have their own room/key and will be just one floor away from accessing all the things needed to help them thrive. They will have on-site access to education and employment training programs, substance abuse and behavioral health services, medical services, meals, and a gym. They will have more independence, their own building entrance, and the freedom and increased responsibility that goes along with that. We meet young people where they are at, and these responsibilities will be catered to each young person and where they are at in their journey.
Q: We certainly couldn’t do this alone. Do you want to expand a bit on those who have funded this project?
A: We have been fortunate to have robust partnerships in this project since the get go, including Premera Blue Cross, the Municipality of Anchorage and CDBG HUD funding, Weidner Apartment Homes and the Alaska Mental Health Trust, Des Moines Federal Home Loan Bank, Rasmuson Foundation, in conjunction with Cook Inlet Housing Authority. Cook Inlet Housing Authority has been a critical partner since the moment moment they helped us secure land (and donated it to us to build our new home), and have been funders, supporters and visionaries every step of the way. We also had the opportunity to represent Anchorage in the US Mayors Conference because we were a recipient of the Wells Fargo CommunityWins grant for creating an innovative, progressive housing project.
And of course, we couldn’t have done this without our community members. Whether you have given $5, $100, or volunteered — you are the reason we have been able to innovate.
Innovation comes when you have the time, space and capacity to look at your organization and think “how can we be different?” Because of the support from our community, we have been able to ask that question instead of “how do we keep the lights on?” We have had the space to say, “What if?” and then we got to work.
Now, we find ourselves standing on a metaphorical bridge that we built together – ready to watch some of the most incredible transformations to ever happen. Not only to individuals, but to our Alaska community as a whole. It’s exciting and I’m humbled to share this moment in history with everyone who has believed in us.