We sat down with Executive Director – Alison Kear for her thoughts on the pandemic’s impact on the residents and staff of Covenant House Alaska.
Q: Alison, it’s been awhile since we have been able to sit down and get a full run down of what’s happening at Covenant House Alaska. So… how have things been the last 6 months?
A: It’s a simple question with a complex answer. But when all is said and done, I’d say that we at Covenant House Alaska have learned more good during the COVID-19 pandemic than we have experienced bad. We have learned the importance of efficiency in our work, targeting processes and we welcomed opportunities to do our jobs better.
Q: How did you keep your residents and staff safe in those early days of the pandemic?
A: COVID-19 brought tremendous uncertainty in those early months when we didn’t know what was around the corner. I know for me personally, I felt the weight of responsibility in keeping 100 kids and 150 employees safe while dedicating efforts to keeping our doors open to the youth who need us. As a result, we were one of the first emergency shelters in Anchorage to require mandatory testing of our youth and staff. We serve a population that statistically, is the demographic for asymptomatic patients. We needed to know our numbers and we needed to know where our challenges were.
To make this happen, our community partnerships were key. We owe a huge thank you to Alaska SouthCentral Foundation, Alaska Native Medical Center, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Anchorage Municipality Health Department for facilitating our regular testing. We have been fortunate to have minimal COVID-19 cases at Covenant House Alaska, and I believe it’s because we tested early and we continue to test often.
Q: What is the biggest opportunity to come from this pandemic?
A: I think the biggest opportunity we have as a society is to realize that every person, no matter their economic status, can add value to a community. People experiencing homelessness are all too often under resourced and under prioritized. Then, unexpectedly, a pandemic hits and we rely on every citizen to do their part. COVID-19 has affected everyone – it isn’t a socioeconomic issue. And at the same time, it was some of the least of us that provided for the most of us. I watched as our marginalized youth continued to show up to their jobs at grocery stores and gas stations day after day, putting themselves at risk in order to serve the community. So yes, expanding our ability as a society to look at a person experiencing homelessness or lower economic status and to see their value could be the best thing that can come from 2020.
Q: If you could tell the community one thing, what would it be?
A: I would just want everyone to know that heroes work at Covenant House Alaska. Honestly, I am humbled when I think about our workforce coming
to work every day, without fail, even when the world around us is unstable and uncertain. Putting their personal fears aside, they held our young people in such high regard and provided comfort and stability. Amazing young people continue to walk through our doors, and the heroes that work at Covenant House Alaska know that youth experiencing homelessness are worthy of love and are our future leaders.
Q: Funding is down at Covenant House Alaska. How have you relied on CARES Act money to continue services?
A: As an organization, we have led youth services with our innovative model of care. Because 70% of our funding is privately donated, we act with agility and can quickly navigate changing circumstances. I think because we have been able to provide our young people with the care they deserve, it gives a public perception that we have all that we need – and this just isn’t the case. We are ending 2020 using $500,000 of reserve money in order to continue services. But we also understand that our community of private donors are struggling – and the CARES Act has made the difference. We aren’t using CARES money to fill our reserve, we are using it to cover salaries in order to keep our doors open 24/7 to struggling youth. I have no doubt that those that have been privately investing in Covenant House Alaska will come back when the dollars are available. Alaskans are tough, and Covenant House Alaska has survived through economic oil crashes and much more over the last few decades. Our donors believe in our mission, and we will do what we can to hold them up until they have the resources to come back. But until then, the CARES Act is giving us the ability to stay afloat until we can operate under our previous model of private investors.
Q: In light of 2020, what does the future care of Alaska’s most vulnerable population look like?
A: Individualized micro units in addition to the shelter beds that we offer. There are a ton of things that are on this A Street footprint that a young person can benefit from. In partnership with Cook Inlet Housing, we have plans to bring individualized micro units to our space allowing youth to have access to apartment-style living. For years we have been adapting and putting a strategic plan in place for this style of care, and COVID-19 has only illuminated the need. It isn’t good enough to have hindsight on 2020 – you have to have foresight that is 20/20. And what that means for this organization and myself is not giving up on what we know is needed for the safety of the staff and the safety of our kids. I never thought 65% of my week would be navigating a pandemic, but I would never take back what I’ve learned from COVID-19.
Q: Thank you so much for your time. Do you have anything you would like to add?
A: I just want to say thank you. Thank you to our partners and supporters who immediately offered services of mentorship, guidance, and support. This year is unlike anything any of us have experienced, and at Covenant House Alaska we couldn’t have done it alone. From no-questions-asked grants to donated PPE for our staff and youth, our partners leaned in and propped us up. Myself, my team, and the more than 200 youth we protected and have served during the pandemic are so thankful.