Covenant House Alaska's Fight Against Human Trafficking

Covenant House Alaska’s Fight Against Human Trafficking

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10/1/21

By Sam Buisman — Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

Every day at Covenant House Alaska, we serve young people who are enduring or are susceptible to exploitation. 

With nearly three in 10 of the youth we serve having experienced some form of human trafficking, combatting this incomparable evil is a tenant of our programming at Covenant House Alaska. Our efforts inside our facilities and outside on the streets work to empower young people to retake control of their lives and end their trafficking experience. 

According to Associate Program Coordinator Eileen Wright, the core of what we offer youth undergoing trafficking is simple, yet lifesaving. 

“Sometimes I think of all those things that these youth have been through, and I always wonder to myself, what is it that keeps them moving forward?” said Wright. “And it is hope. Covenant House provides hope. That’s what we do. We’re in the business of hope.” 

Human Trafficking in Alaska

The first thing to understand about human trafficking in the US and Alaska is that no one truly understands the full extent of the problem.

Human trafficking is drastically underreported in the US due to the hidden nature of the crime, incomplete data and difficulty in reaching trafficked persons. Accordingly, most researchers who study this issue believe that their data underestimate the scope of this issue.

With this caveat in mind, the Global Slavery Index estimates the number of people in the US currently experiencing sex or labor trafficking to be around 403,000 people.

Additionally, other figures suggest that the prevalence of human trafficking in the US may be on the rise; the National Human Trafficking Hotline saw a 19% increase in usage from 2018 to 2019.  

Similarly, the annual number of trafficking cases in Alaska reported to the hotline has risen by 60% from 2015 to 2019, with a peak of 19 cases in 2018.

These figures do not conclusively prove that trafficking is on an uptick — they may only indicate an increase in the use of the hotline. Yet, they demonstrate that human trafficking is a real and dire issue in our community.

What Human Trafficking Looks and Doesn’t Look Like in Alaska

The Department of Justice defines human trafficking as “ a crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services, or commercial sex.” However, what human trafficking looks like in practice can differ from state to state.

As Trafficking Program Coordinator Heather Hagelberger is quick to mention, Alaska faces a distinctive and misunderstood human trafficking situation.

“It’s not what Hollywood depicts it as,” said Hagelberger. “It’s not a lot like what is even seen in the lower 48.”

The sensationalized abductions of movies like “Taken,” where a stranger kidnaps someone who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, is a rarity in Alaska. So is the gang-related trafficking that accounts for a sizable proportion of the issue in the lower 48. 

According to Hagelberger, trafficking situations in Alaska mostly involve a trafficker manipulating a family member or someone whom they know well to fulfill a certain need. This could be a need of the trafficker in particular or of the entire family, such as keeping the lights or heat on. 

This dynamic can make it difficult for someone to recognize that they are being trafficked while giving them a perverse sense of pride in upholding a familial responsibility. 

“They don’t see the coercion,” said Hagelberger, “especially if it’s your mom, your uncle, your grandfather, and it’s for the family. Like, ‘This is just what we do to get by and take care of things.’”

These traffickers often exploit an individual’s pre-existing trauma, which they may be privy to as a family member or close friend, to push them into such a situation.

However, Hagelberger cautions against locking these commonalities into a singular archetype for trafficking in Alaska and letting common red flags metastasize into stereotypes, as this can rob one of the vigilance necessary to spot a trafficking situation. 

“Somebody could be failing in school or showing up in clothing that’s inappropriate for the weather — sure, those are things that draw people’s attention immediately,” said Hagelberger. “But that’s just a broad generalization. A person could have straight A’s in school and a good friend group and still be sexually assaulted every night by somebody because of their trafficker.”

In a sense, trafficking in Alaska has not one look but many individual looks, each resembling a unique case with a unique person in a unique situation. 

Trafficking and Homelessness

Battling human trafficking is a key initiative for Covenant House Alaska because young people who are experiencing homelessness are favored targets for human traffickers.

For a young person, the experience of homelessness almost always means a struggle to fulfill the most basic of human needs. Traffickers can prey on these circumstances to gain control over them. 

“It doesn’t even have to happen quickly,” said Wright. “They could just be like, ‘Hey, I have a couch you can sleep on,’ and one day turns into a week, which turns into, ‘Hey, you now owe me for this place that I’ve let you stay.’” 

Our best data, a 2016 Loyola University study, indicates that nearly 30% of the youth at Covenant House Alaska’s shelter have experienced some form of human trafficking. This was the second-highest rate of trafficking among the 10 Covenant House locations across the US and Canada included in the study.

Human trafficking is a problem endemic not only to the population we serve but to the community we are in as well. Resultantly, working towards its resolution is a cornerstone of our mission at Covenant House Alaska. 

Street Outreach Team

At Covenant House Alaska, our Street Outreach team acts as our first responders to human trafficking. 

This mobile team finds and travels to youth living on the street and is often our first point of contact with individuals being trafficked. Its members come equipped to provide such youth with food, warm clothing on the spot and help them access medical care, working to build relationships with these young people and direct them to our other services. 

According to Wright, the ability to reach out to young people instead of waiting for them to come to our facilities is a boon to our anti-trafficking efforts. 

“If they are engaging in something that isn’t allowed at the shelter, that doesn’t have to be a barrier to meeting with them,” said Wright. “Removing that barrier in itself can just create a relationship, and that relationship is the beginning to healing.” 

Meeting these youth where they are, both physically and emotionally, can be essential in breaking the mental bindings of trafficking.

“When you are in the midst of a trafficking situation, you feel like you have no worth, that no one’s ever gonna care about you again,” said Hagelberger. “We work to tear that down. It’s accepting right where you are.”

Fighting Trafficking via Youth Empowerment

Our larger programming at Covenant House Alaska combats trafficking through empowering young people. Unconditionally offering them the basic needs for human survival prevents traffickers from leveraging those needs against them, allowing a young person to decide to leave a trafficking situation.

“Our role really is just to show them what they have inside of them: the capability to walk away from a situation,” said Wright. “And if they want our help, we can help them.”

With our Youth Engagement Center, Charlie Elder House, MACK House and Right of Passage programs all offering different populations of young people access to shelter, food, healthcare, employment and education services and much more, we can always be available for any young person who decides they want a helping hand. 

“Our only goal here is to be a group of people, an organization, who is there unconditionally,” said Hagelberger, “because they don’t have anyone else in their life who’s going to do that for them.”

The key aspect of this relationship with our young people is choice. Empowerment is not possible if we are forcing our youth to make certain decisions or meet certain conditions to receive our services. It does not make any sense to attempt to end a situation in which a young person’s autonomy is restricted by restricting it in a different way. 

“They know what they need for their lives. They are the expert for themselves,” said Hagelberger. “So if I come in and say, ‘No, this is what you should be doing,’ that’s totally disregarding their own ability and agency to understand what they need for themselves.”

Unconditional service for those who choose to receive it. This mantra guides our anti-trafficking efforts at Covenant House Alaska, and so much more of what we do. 

Anchorage is in This Together

We at Covenant House Alaska do all we can to mitigate human trafficking in our state, but there is a role for every one of its citizens to play as well.

Hagelberger stressed that despite how overwhelming this problem may seem, it is more than possible for one person or a small group to make a difference. 

“Get a group together, learn, educate yourself,” said Hagelberger. “Be situationally aware, and then know who to contact.”

According to Wright, donations of money or time, large or small, can make a huge difference in a young person’s life. 

“Sometimes, people think it needs to be these broad acts, and it doesn’t,” said Wright.

By supporting Covenant House Alaska, you tell a vulnerable young person that they matter.

If you would like to make your own difference by contributing to Covenant House Alaska’s anti-trafficking mission, you can donate here or sign up to volunteer here.

Summer Volunteer Activities Roundup

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9/22/21

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

We’ve all noticed it. The days are getting shorter, the weather is getting colder, the snow is creeping down from the mountains and into our backyards — summer is over, and the fall is here!

With summer coming to an official close, we wanted to highlight all the amazing adventures our young people were able to experience because of our generous donors and mentor volunteers. For a lot of our youth, the outdoors represent the treacherous living conditions and trauma of the streets that they are fighting to overcome. But because of our supporters, they were able to enjoy the Alaskan summer how it is intended to be. 

Stretching from the heights of Palmer to the gorges of the Kenai Mountains, our young people and volunteers covered a lot of ground. So, we want to break down our summer month-by-month and celebrate the activities we fit into each one. 

But, before we can do that, we need to extend the most gracious of thank yous to our mentors and volunteers. None of this would be possible without them and their unconditional love for our youth. Thank you for giving these young Alaskans joy and memories. 

April

Our summer had the perfect kick-off with a barbeque at Balto Seppala Park! The combination of our mentors, a smorgasbord of summer meats and a ripping-hot grill added up to a classic April evening for our youth. Nothing says “welcome back, summer!” quite like sticky barbecue sauce smeared across a smiling face.

One of our mentors works the grill at our April BBQ.

May

As temperatures climbed higher, so did we, with a hike up Turnagain Arm! Our volunteers guided our youth up all of the 1538 feet of elevation gain on this 5.4-mile trail. While the views were fantastic, it was edged out by the looks of accomplishment and awe in the eyes of our young mountaineers. 

And since April’s barbecue was such a smash hit, we kept the party going with another barbecue in May! Our grillmaster mentors again fired up the grills and piled plates high, this time right on the grounds of our Passage House facility. While prized leftovers only lingered for a couple of days, the shared memories of such a treat will last a lifetime. 

Another summer BBQ was a big hit with our youth!

June

With summer in full swing, our volunteers made sure our young people got the chance to visit a true Anchorage institution: the Alaska Zoo. Our youth encountered leopards, tigers and bears (oh my!) as they trekked through the wooded zoo trails. 

The Alaska Zoo was almost more fun than we could “bear!”

For a more low-key activity, our volunteers helped our young people explore their creative sides with an afternoon of rock painting. Colors danced from brush tip to igneous canvas as our youth connected with both nature and art. The bedazzling final products now adorn Passage House, bringing a little more brightness to its rooms and hallways for our moms and babies. 

July

There is perhaps no time better than a long July day to play a few holes at Peters Creek Disc Golf Course! Our mentors took our youth up to the Chugiak course where they let drives fly like they were taking off from Ted Stevens Airport. Through 18 holes of fun, our volunteers showed our young people a great day on the links. 

Our volunteers also arranged a truly special evening for our young people: dinner at the Alaska Botanical Gardens. Our youth dined on locally-grown food while learning about its history from some of the foremost experts on Alaskan botany. The evening was a unique blend of culture and cuisine that no one involved will forget. 

Delicious food and fantastic culture came together for our youth at the Alaska Botanical Gardens.

August 

It wouldn’t be an Alaskan August without a trip to the State Fair! Thanks to a generous ticket donation from our longtime partner GCI, we were able to treat our young people to a day of wild rides, live shows and food on a stick. With the help of our volunteers and GCI, our youth were able to partake in this cherished state tradition.

One of our staff watched this trip become a bonding experience among a group of young women. After one of our young women ran into her old skating coach, she shared that she grew up competing in horseback riding events and figure skating. The group then continued to open up to one another, allowing them to settle into each other’s company and the joy of the day.

“I’m so happy she is happy,” one young woman remarked about one of her peers. “I haven’t seen her happy in a long time!” 

We also partnered with the Anchorage Police Department for what we called a “Hike With a Cop!” A bit of rain could not deter Officer Brenden Lee, who led our young people down the iconic, 11-mile Powerline Pass trail. A special thanks to Officer Lee and the APD for giving our youth such a wonderful and informative afternoon!

Our youth and mentors took Polaroid photos of their hike with Officer Lee.

Lastly, before the summer closed out, our volunteers had to make sure our youth could pay another visit to our furry friends at the Alaska Zoo. Say what you will, but laying eyes on a Bactrian camel never gets old!

Our youth returned to the Alaska Zoo at the end of the summer.

End-of-Summer Camping Trip

For our last hurrah of the summer, we took our young people on a camping and fishing trip on the Kenai Peninsula. This multi-day adventure let our youth enjoy the natural wonders of our state and would not have been possible without the talents and treasure of our mentors and multiple community partners. 

Our youth and mentors stayed in comfortable cabins and yurts provided by the Alaska Huts Association at a generously discounted rate and the cabin of our wonderful donor Christie Hudson, all nestled in the shadow of the Kenai Mountains. 

Alaska Pacific University was kind enough to give us a sizable discount on our rentals of camping necessities, including backpacks, sleeping bags and the all-important bear spray.

Our youth hike their way to the campsite.
Our youth saw beautiful Alaskan vistas on their camping trip.

After a 5:00 A.M. wake-up call, our campers embarked on the Kenai River to fish for silver salmon. The good folks at Trophy Drifters and Alaska Boat Rental each provided us with boats and expert guides for our trip. Thanks to them, it seemed like our youth couldn’t stop pulling fish out of the water!

Thanks to Southcentral Foundation, with the support of the SAMSHA GLS grant, we were able to purchase fishing licenses and gear for our youth. Our young people were able to engage and learn healthy coping skills with our message of hope, resilience and connection to culture.

With our fresh catches in hand, Tanner Berube of Jolly Wally’s Seafood then cleaned, filleted and vacuum-sealed our salmon for us. Even though you could see through the wrapping, these fillets were no less of a present for our youth. 

Finally, the foundation of this entire trip was our mentors Kristen, Lance and Andrew. These three spent most or the entirety of their weekends to give our youth a weekend unlike any other. 

Once again, we would like to give a massive thanks to all of our community partners and mentors who worked together to give our youth a weekend that most people in the lower 48 would be willing to travel to Alaska for. We, and our young people, will never forget your generosity. 

Our youth working together to build a fire at the campsite.

Onto Fall

The leaves may be changing, but one thing certainly will remain the same: Covenant House Alaska, in partnership with our volunteers and donors, will continue to organize invigorating outings for our youth that connect them with our state and local community. 

Our volunteers and community partners have always been essential in enabling us to provide our youth the adventures they deserve. If you would like more information about being a mentor at Covenant House Alaska, please click here. If you are interested in forging a community partnership with us, please contact us

This Day in Covenant House History: Remembering Sister Mary Rose

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Sister Mary Rose’s tenure as Covenant House director remains foundational to the capacity of our organization today. Photo: Covenant House Vancouver.

9/13/21

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

Today marks the ninth anniversary of the passing of Sister Mary Rose McGeady, whose leadership allowed Covenant House to flourish internationally as it entered the 21st century. 

Sister Mary Rose served as Covenant House’s second director from 1990 to 2003. Taking the reins amidst a period of upheaval and plummeting donations, she revitalized Covenant House and guided the organization into a golden age of international growth.

Born in 1928, Mary Rose quickly found and heeded her life’s calling. She attended Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul’s Immaculate Conception Academy and joined the cloth in 1946. 

After graduating from Emmanuel College with a sociology degree in 1955, she worked with various child-care nonprofits before and while continuing her education at Fordham University, achieving her master’s in clinical psychology in 1961. Across the next few decades, she hopped between East Coast charities before rising to an executive position with the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. 

Then, in 1990, Mary Rose was chosen to lead Covenant House. At the time, the organization was hemorrhaging money, with annual donations dropping by nearly half over the past year. 

Mary Rose not only reversed Covenant House’s downward spiral but ushered in a period of dramatic growth that proved definitive to the organization Covenant House is today. During her tenure as director, she more than tripled our annual donations and oversaw the opening of 11 new Covenant House sites, including Covenant House Alaska. 

An innovative thinker, she also took steps to adapt Covenant House’s outreach to the changing technology of the new millennium by rolling out our 24-hour crisis hotline, “the Nineline.” 

At the time of her retirement in 2003, Covenant House was steadily rising in donations and operating in 22 cities across North and Central America. 

Today, Covenant House is active in 31 cities across six countries and has served over 1 million children. It is impossible that we would have been able to reach these heights without the industriousness and courageousness of Mary Rose. 

Sister Mary Rose died in 2012, but her legacy lives on within the doors of every Covenant House and in the smiles on the faces of kids who come through them. We are eternally proud of and grateful for her service, and we hope that she would feel the same way about ours.

Suicide Prevention at Covenant House Alaska

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To recognize World Suicide Prevention Day, we took a look at suicide in Alaska and how this issue interacts with our work.

9/10/21

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

Today marks the 19th annual World Suicide Prevention Day, and we at Covenant House Alaska want to honor this day with an honest discussion on the scale of this problem and reflection on the work we do to abate it.

Suicide prevention is integrated into our day-to-day operations at Covenant House Alaska. The youth that we serve are at one of the greatest risks of suicide in the entire US, demanding vigilance and compassion of our staff and programming. Yet, we are ready to meet this challenge with the enduring and unconditional love we bring to all of our pursuits. 

“We’re not going to give up on you, we’re going to care about you,” said Chief Program Officer Heidi Huppert. “We’re gonna have laughs, we’re gonna have heart, and that’s what’s gonna keep us connected. And when you’re not doing well, we’re gonna know it.”

Suicide Among Alaskan Teens 

While suicide is a serious national problem, it hits Alaskan youth harder than almost any other group. 

The US recorded nearly 48,000 suicides in 2019, setting a national suicide rate of 14.8 deaths per 100,000 residents. At this scale, suicide ranks as the 10th leading cause of death in the US.

However, these numbers soar upwards amongst Alaskan teenagers. Alaska has the highest teen suicide rate in the country, with 34.0 suicide deaths per 100,000 teens ages 15-19. This triples the national teen suicide rate of 11.1 deaths and leaves suicide as the leading cause of death for Alaskan teens. 

Disturbing as these numbers are, experts believe they underestimate the actual scale of this problem due to gaps in data and a lack of reporting. Regardless of such caveats, these numbers already show that suicide is an exceptional and endemic threat to Alaskan teens. 

Suicide and Homelessness

Complicating this problem even further is the unique connection between suicide and homelessness. 

If a person lives through a period of homelessness, they often endure multiple experiences that the National Health Care for the Homeless Council identifies as increasing one’s risk of suicidal ideation, including “anxiety and stress,” “family conflict,” “isolation and loneliness” and others. 

Quantifying this risk, some studies have determined suicide rates to be 10 times higher among people experiencing homelessness when compared to the general population.

Akin to suicide at large, this phenomenon is also more pronounced amongst teens. A 2011 study found that while adults begin to exhibit suicidal ideations after an average of six months of homelessness, for children, this average drops to a single week.

Our Efforts

The data makes it clear: the population that we serve at Covenant House Alaska, Alaskan youth experiencing homelessness, are at acute risk of suicide. 

Yet, Huppert says that an awareness of this risk allows our staff to take what she sees as the most important step in suicide prevention: responding to our youth when they reach out. 

“When our young people say that they’re feeling some kind of way, the first thing that we do is believe them,” said Huppert, “and then you’re going to get the services that they need, in real-time, with urgency.”

Covenant House Alaska provides our youth access to mental health professionals and counseling services on site. Flanked by our behavioral, physical health and substance abuse services, these programs make up our frontline against suicide. 

Additionally, Huppert makes it a priority to extensively train Covenant House Alaska programming staff who work directly with our youth in suicide prevention. As 48% of suicide attempts occur within 20 minutes of the decision to do so, this includes the ability to rapidly recognize suicidal behavior and direct the youth to the services they need.  

Our suicide prevention efforts go beyond these in-the-moment services to the structure of Covenant House Alaska. Recognizing that LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) staff works to keep Covenant House Alaska a safe and inclusive place for all of our youth. 

“When there’s a feeling of not belonging, that could lead to suicide,” said DEI in Administration Director Tafi Toleafoa. “Just making sure that we love them and that they feel loved is what DEI is about. Celebrating why we’re different.”

For our other populations that are particularly at risk, we provide similar suicide prevention services tailored to their lived experiences. Our partnership with Southcentral Foundation allows us to supply indigenous Alaskans, who have the highest suicide rate of any racial or ethnic group in the US, with healthcare conscious of their rich culture and history. 

Finally, as Huppert describes, the backbone of suicide prevention at Covenant House Alaska is the relationship that our staff builds with our youth. 

“If we were talking like, ‘Here’s a frequency and a dosage of a magic medication,’” said Huppert, “ours is relationships.”

It is through this trust and genuine care that Covenant House Alaska can and hopes to continue providing a lasting solution for our at-risk youth.

Moving Forward

Huppert sees some cause for optimism regarding suicide prevention. As the negative stigma surrounding mental health issues has declined, so have the accompanying inhibitions to talking about it.

“The good news is we have young people that are being raised in a place where it’s okay to say that you’re not doing well,” said Huppert. “When I used to work on the floor, they would say to me, ‘Hey, you should go talk to so and so, they’re not doing good.’” 

Even with this pearl of hope, there remains plenty of work to do in this state and country to prevent youth suicide. But however long this road may be, Covenant House Alaska is ready to walk it. 

If You Need Help

If you are struggling with suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The state of Alaska also has a local network of hotlines, which can be found here

Volunteer Spotlight: Cleaning Crew

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Volunteers with Covenant House’s cleaning crew help keep our space clean for our residents!

Aug. 25, 2021

Anna Gilbert

Covenant House Alaska wouldn’t be the same place without the support of our multitalented volunteers. We offer many roles that make up a volunteer force with something for everyone. Throughout the past year and a half, we really felt the absence of volunteers in our spaces hard. In an effort to create contactless opportunities that allow volunteers to enter our space, we created the cleaning crew at our downtown Youth Navigation Center! 

Aside from our routine cleaning practices, volunteers are welcomed into our space once a week after hours for a quick cleaning of the building, where they mop and wipe down high touch surfaces. This small gesture has a great impact on our Housing Team, and they are so thankful for the lift. Additionally, their efforts help us maintain our perpetually high standards of cleanliness for our residents amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

As author Gretchen Rubin says, “Outer order contributes to inner calm.”

Kristen’s Story

Cleaning crew member Kristen Roberson, who started mentoring with CHA in the spring of 2020, prizes the opportunity to diversify her role in our shared mission of ending the experience of homelessness for young Alaskans.

“I hope to continue being involved with CHA, even beyond mentoring!” said Kristen. “I know there are lots of different opportunities, and CHA could use the help.”

Kristren says she enjoys how the easy and quick nature of her cleaning crew role supports the hard work of the Housing team. Regarding both her youth-facing and supportive roles, Kristen says CHA gives plenty of opportunities to help others and meet people in the community. For her, these experiences and relationships have profoundly impacted her life.

The Cleaning Crew helps ensure that all of our spaces, like our common room, stay tidy.

Get Involved!

In fact, as our Trafficking Prevention Team expands into a new building, we are looking to expand our cleaning crew to help support this location as well. Fill out a volunteer form to learn more!

Volunteer form: Desktop/Mobile/App

Addi at college

Transformation Tuesday: Addi

Jessica Bowers Our Youth Leave a Comment

Our Covenant House Alaska family celebrates as we send one of our incredible youth off to college for the Fall semester! Contributed by Program Coordinator, Nicole Stuemke

Addi’s Story

Addi grew up in the Las Vegas area in a home where she endured years of neglect and abuse. When she was old enough, she moved to Alaska where she had extended family, hoping for things to be different. She wasn’t here long when she discovered that the dysfunction she had grown up with ran deep in her family. Alaska was not the home she had dreamed of.

Luckily for us, Addi found her way to Covenant House Alaska. She got a job within days of landing at our emergency shelter at the Youth Engagement Center. She was encouraged to apply for our Rights of Passage (ROP) program. A transitional living program for young adults, and was accepted quickly. Addi moved into ROP and kept working and saving. In a stable environment, surrounded by adults who were excited to support her dreams, Addi began to make big plans.

Embracing Opportunity

For Addi, Alaska never became home. She was searching for the place that was right for her to put down roots and find community. In the meantime, she embraced every opportunity to play sports and stay active, which is her passion. She loved to hike, bike and play ultimate frisbee.

Addi worked with ROP staff, and staff at our partner agencies Nine Star Education & Employment and Cook Inlet Tribal Council, her Covenant House Alaska Permanency Navigator and her employer at Seeds of Change to find a community college in Massachusetts that fit her educational goals. Wisely, she took advantage of every opportunity and resource made available to her, and managed to find a Permanency Navigator in Massachusetts who would help her find housing and access the services she would need there to keep succeeding.

Off to College!

A month before her departure to college, she reached out to ROP Program coordinator Nicole Stuemke and asked if Nicole could fly with her to Massachusetts to help her get settled. Nicole was thrilled (as any proud parent would be!) to be invited to support Addi in such a momentous step. So, together they packed up and headed East. Once they got there, they met with Addi’s new Permanency Navigator and Housing Case Manager, and began work on getting her state residency, benefits, and housing essentials. The next day and half was spent looking at the community college and touring two other colleges and transitional living programs. Nicole instantly knew Addi was in good hands.

Today, Addi is in her second week of college on the beginning of her journey to pursue sports medicine or physical therapy. She is working in a local bakery and loving her new housing situation. In the end, it was hard to say goodbye to Addi. However; we will stay in touch and continue to champion Addi like the proud family that we are.

Addi is a beautiful example of what is possible when a community comes together around a young person and lifts them up to achieve their own dreams. We are so proud of her and cannot wait to see where she goes from here.

Celebrate a young person’s potential today by visiting coveycares.org

photo of Dani

In Memory

Jessica Bowers Our Youth Leave a Comment

The below memoriam is written by our Chief Program Officer, Heidi Huppert. We love our youth, like our own.

In our little chapel with its glass walls, we have held far too many memorial services for the young people we have lost.

With the services we pull together with our Pastoral Minister and a smattering of staff that knew the young person best, we manage to hold the most beautiful and thoughtful remembrances. May 24, 2021 was no exception. We honored a beloved young woman, Dani Meadows. It’s always surprising to me whom these young people touch and for Dani, there were many in attendance, from the guy in the data department to friends from the programs she stayed at when she lived with us. Dani was so loved.

The stories shared about her had the attendants crying and laughing, sometimes at the same time. Personally, I’ve not felt such deep sorrow and jubilation simultaneously. In some ways I felt so lucky to have gotten to know Dani which makes her loss so much more profound.

In celebrating Dani were learned about a young woman with a deep love of her family, friends, pets and an ambition to make something of herself. Years ago, Dani told me, “No one expects anything of me. Back in Alabama I was just supposed to sit in a hot trailer and collect disability.” Like many of the other staff at Covenant House, I responded, “well, you proved them wrong, didn’t you?” She truly did.

Dani came to Alaska with little more than some loose internet connections. Soon she found herself in our Youth Engagement Center, experiencing homelessness for the first time in her life. Very quickly Dani was accepted into the Rights of Passage Program where she thrived. For the first time in her life, she found employment and started saving money. She wanted to get a driver’s license, so she put herself through Driver’s Education. She bought a car. She fell in love. She made friends. While Dani’s past pained her, she refused to let it hold her back. She got off of disability because she said, “I can pay my own way.” Dani got an apartment and became a regular daily call to check on the staff she referred to as her “moms.”

Dani was magical. We joked that she might have been a unicorn. Dani loved Alabama football, so we decorated in deep reds. She loved cupcakes and Dr. Pepper so we all popped our cans in honor of her. I won’t be able to forget our young lady with the strong southern accent that loved so hard it sometimes hurt. I won’t forget how brave she was in allowing herself to be vulnerable when faced with rejection. Our unicorn taught us a lot. Roll Tide, RIP Dani

Funders and CHA Executive Director Alison Kear standing with shovels at Breaking Ground ceremony

Breaking Ground and Building Bridges for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

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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. 

Executive Director Alison Kear

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.

Covenant House Alaska Youth Engagement Center

Reggie’s Story

Jessica Bowers Events Leave a Comment

Thank you to Jenifer Lachance, Covenant House Alaska YEC Associate Program Coordinator for Minor Youth, and Sara Jean Greenberg, Referral Specialist for Minor Youth, for sharing their direct experience with this young man.

Reggie arrived at Covenant House Alaska with raised fists and a short fuse. Just shy of 18, Reggie didn’t quite understand his size or strength yet. This only enabled him to use intimidation and fiery outbursts to push people away, whether their intentions were good or not. It wasn’t uncommon for him to punch bunk beds & walls, slam doors, and spit biting words at both staff and other youth.

This young man transitioned out of our services in just one month.

Community support

“The networking and team-approach that our community came together and did is something that we have not always seen, and it was beautiful. As a community, we came together and met the needs of this youth.”

Jenifer Lachance, YEC Associate Program Coordinator for Minor Youth

Reggie moved from American Samoa several years before his time at Covenant House Alaska. He struggled with language barriers as a non-native English speaker. This in tandem with his temper landed him at a school for youth who struggle with behavioral health issues. His breaking point culminated in a physical altercation with his family, that left him battered, emotionally and physically, on Covenant House Alaska’s doorstep.

“When he first arrived, he was angry, shut down; he felt like nobody cared about him and just wanted to give up. When he left, he could tell you that we cared about him, we were here as a support system for him, and that his wants mattered. And I don’t think there’s anything more any of us wanted than that.”

On the road to healing

Our staff really went to work to install a rock solid support system for this young man. They were able to connect him with a behavioral health clinician. He attended school every day. They coordinated with his school teachers and the Office of Child Services to create a system of accountability and constructive re-enforcement as a response to his anger outbursts. Some of our overnight and maintenance staff spoke his native language, so they made a point to connect with him that way.

“They went out of their way to build a relationship with this youth so that he knew that he was cared about, that he mattered, and that his wants mattered.”

After his month at Covenant House Alaska, he went to placement with a retired teacher and his wife. They took him in so that he could finish school in Anchorage and support him as he navigated next steps.

As a whole, this is truly a story of community partnership & resiliency and a prime example of trauma-informed care.

The power of trauma-informed care

“We all got really creative, really quick to figure out how we could best serve him. We don’t come to work with a cookie-cutter approach. Trauma-informed care is evaluating a youth’s situation and troubleshooting how we can best serve them.”

The staff that worked directly with this young man speak so fondly of him and his character after his time here. It’s abundantly clear that Reggie made an impact on those around him purely by turning away from dysfunction and desiring a healthy perspective on relationship and communication.

“When he first arrived, our interactions with him mostly consisted of cursing and anger. By the time he left, we’d be able to joke with him. He’d be playing old Tupac songs outside, and we’d go out there and sing the lyrics, and he’d be so surprised. ‘What? You know this?’

Those are relationship building moments that were a privilege for our staff to have with him.”

When reflecting on this success story, Jenifer Lachance perfectly summed up the intentions we’ve built our mission around here at Covenant House Alaska:

“At the end of the day, he went to a positive placement where he wanted to be, he was able to identify his support system (included the staff at CHA whether he’s a resident here or not), and when he left, he know that he was cared about, and if he needed a safe place to come ever again, he can walk back through our doors and he’s welcome. That’s what we live for. That’s what we breathe and what we work here for.”

Jenifer Lachance, YEC Associate Program Coordinator for Minor Youth

Tom Homza decked in Santa gear at ROP sledding event

Covenant House Alaska Mentor Spotlight – Tom

Jessica Bowers Mentor, Volunteer Stories Leave a Comment

Mentor Journey

This month’s Covenant House Alaska mentor spotlight is Tom Homza! Tom has served as an exceptional Rights of Passage mentor since December 2018.

Tom’s motivation to become a Covenant House Alaska mentor stems from our mission statement.

In the Covenant House mission statement is a phrase about serving youth “with absolute respect.” I feel this is a critical part of any pathway to success in helping those needing a lift: respect for those you serve.

Tom

Relentless Engagement

Tom mentored a young man from Covenant House Alaska who struggled with substance abuse and a traumatic brain injury. As soon as Tom began working with this young man, he relentlessly showed up looking for him, waiting for him, and engaging in the moment — no matter what.

By far my favorite part of spending time with him has been watching his success. His will to be better and his dedication to his recovery have been an inspiration to me. 

Tom

Once he officially entered treatment, Tom consistently visited, called, and wrote. Later, the young man accepted residence at a treatment center in California. Upon graduation, Tom was added to his aftercare plan for reentry.

Lasting Impact

Upon graduation, Tom supported him through his reintroduction to his hometown Seward. Tom visited him in Seward, taking him on hikes and bike rides. He even obtained a bike donation! 

He has remained in close contact, encouraging him to apply for jobs and has remained a reference for the young man. 

Tom is everything a mentor can and should be. He has been involved with staff, an advocate to the community, a consistent loving support for the young man and truly the biggest cheerleader. This young man would not be where he is today without Tom.

Nicole Stuemke, Program Coordinator, Rights of Passage

Tom is a very humble giver and this young man, as well as Covenant House Alaska as a whole, are very lucky to have encountered his presence.

Thank You, Tom!

The staff at Covenant House are very special, caring folks; every one of them. I’m very proud to work alongside such wonderful people of high integrity, even if it’s for short periods of time.

Tom

When asked to review the efficacy of our services to young people in Alaska, he generously responded:

Your services are a literal life-saver for many youth in Anchorage. Anchorage is an extremely challenging city to experience homelessness in. 

Tom

Volunteer Today

Thank you, Tom, for your generous services. The youth and staff at Covenant House Alaska value you so much.

If you are interested in volunteering through our mentorship program, email volunteer@covenanthouseak.org