In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, Covenant House Alaska has supported over 200 youth with immediate shelter, independent living situations, meals, and connection to resources. We’ve provided mental health and physical health care, supported emotional wellbeing, and fostered education opportunities to students as they continued school outside of the classroom. While the doors of many other organizations and businesses throughout the community slowed down or closed, our work only intensified.
We saw an increase in the number of minors at our shelter who have nowhere else to go because OCS was not doing any foster home placements for a time due to the pandemic. In working closely with OCS, we were able to ensure that kids in foster care with no placement were brought to our emergency shelter program, which is housed within the Youth Engagement Center (YEC), where they can remain safe until circumstances change. Also, under normal circumstances our YEC is only licensed to allow youth to stay with us until they turn 21, but to be discharged abruptly during a pandemic would be traumatic in ways we were not prepared to allow. We were able to work out a temporary variance in our licensing so that, on a case by case basis, we could allow 21-year-olds to stay with us at the YEC.
We reorganized our shared spaces to create room for social distancing, have hand sanitizer stations all over the building, and set up two separate locations for youth who are display symptoms and are awaiting test results or for those who test positive, when and if that occurs. We distributed masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to our youth, who would have no other way to access them.
For the young people we had recently placed into their own apartments through our Rapid Rehousing Program, a whole different set of difficulties emerged. Youth in apartments were experiencing extreme isolation. After living in shelter settings for so long they are not used to living alone, which intensified depression and other mental health issues. Sudden and unexpected isolation made youth want to seek out the communities they once knew, however dysfunctional they may have been. As many can attest, loneliness during this pandemic has been challenging even with strong support systems.
Due to state and city mandates, our team of Permanency Navigators (PN)–mobile case managers who help youth in whatever ways they need to stay successful–are unable to serve these youth in the same ways they could a few months ago. Our PNs could no longer drop in to spend time with youth and were not allowed to pick them up and take them grocery shopping or to appointments, vital periods of time during which the strong connections our youth need were maintained. Instead, our PNs purchased and dropped groceries, and learned how to utilize our city’s mobile food bank system, which we then taught the youth to use from home. From the beginning of the hunker down orders, our PNs helped 212 youth with 1,299 different instances of service to help keep them fed, housed, safe and stable.
This continued relentless engagement has been necessary because most of our youth do not own their own vehicles and rely on public transportation, which also ceased for a time. AnchorRides started a service that we have been able to use for some youth to get to appointments, though it must be scheduled far in advance. In situations that can’t be planned for, we have used cab vouchers to make sure our youth can get where they need to go. However, these options are not sufficient to get our youth to work. Our youth who have not lost their jobs because of business closures lost them for lack of a way to get there. As a result, and because of regulations currently in place that do not allow evictions for failure to pay rent, local landlords have been extremely reticent to go into lease agreements with our youth who need housing. Our Rapid ReHousing Case Managers and PNs worked tirelessly to cultivate and sustain positive relationships with Anchorage landlords as a way to mitigate these fears. They responded swiftly to any complaints or concerns landlords may have and collaborated on solving problems. Our teams seized this moment as an opportunity to build our reputation as an agency so that when we finally see the end of these strange times, those local partnerships will be stronger.
Staff shortages were incredibly taxing on all of our programs. Volunteers, who are a crucial supplement to our staff, are not able to be on-site and all non-essential staff are required to work from home. Our entire Housing Department began working at the Youth Engagement Center and our transitional living programs to supplement staff shortages and some administrative staff began covering shifts where necessary. When normal Street Outreach to help youth on the streets and in camps was not possible during hunker down mandates, our Outreach teams also helped to fill in staffing gaps. We reached out to other service providers and relied on our Permanency Navigators to help us connect with youth who were staying at the Sullivan or Ben Boeke Arenas to make the contacts our Outreach teams cannot. Our Outreach staff have made extra efforts, through social media, to keep in touch with youth we know are still on the streets.
Mental and physical health care is more important for the continued success of our young people now than it ever was, at a time when it is least accessible. Most clinics and counseling centers are not open. Also, access to COVID-19 testing is difficult to get and cost prohibitive to our youth. To meet these needs, we have leaned heavily on our partnership with SouthCentral Foundation who operates our clinic at the YEC. With added precautions, our youth have been able to utilize the clinic to meet basic medical needs. In partnership with ANTHC, we were able to get every one of our youth and staff tested for COVID-19 on site at the YEC at no cost to them, with 24 hour results. Of more than 200 total youth and staff, we have no positive cases at this time.
Many of our youth come to us struggling with substance abuse and mental illness as factors contributing to, and resulting from, their homelessness. When we built the Youth Engagement Center (YEC), we added offices in the building for our partner agencies who provide counseling and treatment, so that the help our youth need is all in one place. Currently, our partners are not able to come on site leaving a huge gap in services our youth depend on. Our staff set up Zoom meetings in the same offices where these partner staff usually work so that the experience of meeting with counselors is as normal for our youth as possible. Another long-time community volunteer group, the Crisis Response Canines, have been a huge part of supporting the emotional wellbeing of our youth for the past several years by providing therapy dog visits and conversation to the youth. We have not been able to welcome them in, but they have been sending videos and photos of the dogs playing and saying hello, looking forward to when they can return.
Keeping over 200 youth safe, happy, and provided for over the past few months has been far from easy; we have seen both youth and staff struggle through this time. Nevertheless, our focus has been on keeping these young people hopeful for the future, because hope is what keeps us all going. The way our staff and partners showed up—unafraid to step out of their homes, leaving their own families, making themselves available every step of the way— has given everyone at CHA hope. And while we saw some dark times, we are stronger on the other side.