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Organizations step up to address growing homeless and poverty needs

Shady Grove Oliver

The needs of those experiencing homelessness and poverty in the Homer area are growing, and organizations are stepping up to help.

The Homelessness Action Group began recently as a way to address the lack of shelters in the area and the Homer Community Food Pantry is expanding, in part because the number of clients it serves is growing.

Kyla Dammann works with youth at the Recreation and Education Cooperative, better known as the R.E.C. Room. She said teenagers have come up to her with no place to sleep and helping them find a place to stay is complicated.  

“Basically if you take in someone that age without parent permission, it's considered harboring a minor, so there's a lot of hoops to jump through with that and there's not really a whole lot of places for them to go,” she said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District said the number of homeless students is increasing. There are programs to help homeless students such as the district’s Students in Transition program, which helps students who lack stable or adequate housing.

There’s also the Safe Families for Children program, which give parents an option to put their kids in a safe place while facing a temporary crisis.

There are also some exceptions that allow caregivers to take minors in without parental permission. But there are no shelters in Homer open to teenagers.

“Most homeless youth have couches to sleep on so they can hop around from friends to friends and stay with different families and whatever…,” she said. “But there was one instance in particular where somebody was given a tent and went to go sleep in a park before the campground opened and then  couldn't sleep there.”

So Dammann and the head of the local Safe Families for Children chapter started the Homelessness Action Group in September. A similar organization existed in Homer in the past.

“My goal with being a part of a group or starting a group is that we can find a solution to giving people beds,” she said.

The group has held two meetings so far and it plans to continue to meet once a month. By the spring, Dammann hopes its plans for a teen shelter will become more concrete.

The group is also starting a fund to help homeless teens who come to the R.E.C. Room. It additionally plans to hold a resource event in January, which will offer items and services such as clothing, cab vouchers and medical care to homeless residents.

But the Homelessness Action Group isn’t the only one seeing an increase in need. David Nofziger is the board president of the Homer Community Food Pantry. He said the pantry has seen more people coming through its doors in recent years.

“In 2017 [there] was about 10 percent more households than were in 2016,” he said. “This year we have had essentially the same number of households come in the 10 months that have passed that we had all year last year. So we're going to have more total households this year again.”

Nofziger said not everyone who utilizes the food pantry’s services comes regularly. He said there is a large number of area residents who just come in a handful of times per year.

But he said regulars are coming more often than in the past. He adds that clients often need more than just food. Sherry Stead, a board member of the pantry said that’s why the organization offers additional services.

“We provide needed emergency assistance including heating oil, wood, laundry and shower vouchers," she said. “We have camping gear that we give out if people need camping gear.”  

The nonprofit also gives financial assistance so people can afford prescription medication and partners with other organizations to help those coming through its doors find and pay for housing.   

The pantry also recently started offering a number of kids a backpack of food weekly. But Stead said one of the biggest changes is the board hiring a staff member this summer. The pantry used to pay a few people to help clean but otherwise, it relied solely on volunteers.

“We do have the paid coordinator now for half-time and that has really allowed us to offer more to our clients,” she said.

The food pantry is holding its annual Empty Bowls Fundraising Luncheon on Nov. 9. The Homelessness Action Group is hosting an ecstatic dance fundraiser Friday at KBay Caffé. 

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