On the evening of Nov. 16, a large crowd stood bundled in winter clothes at Town Square Park. Their gloved hands held white candles in transparent plastic holders, illuminating their visible breath in a soft glowing haze that hung over their faces. It was cold — about 25 degrees — and only seemed to get colder.
The event was a candlelight vigil for homeless youth, organized by Covenant House Alaska. Speakers took turns at a podium showing their support of the shelter’s mission to assist homeless youth and the need for the community to rally around the issue.
First Lady of Alaska Donna Walker, Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott and Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz were some of the speakers who addressed the crowd.
“We have to remember that we can solve problems,” Berkowitz said. “We can eliminate homelessness. We can make sure that the most vulnerable amongst us are protected, but we can only do that by working together, by being bigger than we have been, by being bolder than we have been, by being the people we’re supposed to be.”
Dash Togi, a recent graduate of Covenant House’s transitional living program, told the crowd how she ended up at the shelter.
Coming out as homosexual was a “big disappointment and disgrace” to her family, Togi said. She was physically abused and wore long sleeves and pants to cover the evidence of the beatings she received. She would cry herself to sleep at night and felt like she didn’t belong. Her English professor at UAA told her she needed to get out of that situation, so she did.
“The real challenge of growth — mentally, emotionally and spiritually — is when life hits you hard and knocks you down so low that you feel as if there is no hope,” Togi said. “This is where so many kids and youth who wind up at the door of Covenant House are, with no sense of hope.”
Now 20, Togi has her own apartment and is grateful the support and acceptance she received at the shelter.
The vigil wasn’t entirely heartfelt speeches, though. A youth choir performed songs like “Imagine” and “Lean on Me,” Broadway actress and Covenant House International Board Member Capathia Jenkins led a moment of silence followed by a rendition of “Amazing Grace” and the crowd sung along as Togi performed a portion of Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.”
That night, representatives of Covenant House and local companies slept outside in the shelter’s courtyard to raise money for the organization. The fundraiser took in over $320,000, but the Sleep Out isn’t just a way to get donations. It’s also meant to give participants a taste of what homeless youth deal with on a daily basis.
“You learn from experience, so it’s really helped,” Covenant House Executive Director Alison Kear said.
Kear has participated in all five previous Sleep Outs, the first of which was held inside. When the next one was outdoors, Kear got a cold dose of reality. While the night was uncomfortable, Kear was in a safe area. She knew there were kids in worse situations not far from the downtown shelter.
“I woke up at like 3 in the morning and I cried for like an hour,” Kear said. “And I was surrounded by CEOs and good friends that I knew, and I realized there’s a young person that’s waking up in this situation and they don’t have that.”
Kear said the solutions to addressing homelessness are housing stability, education and employment opportunities, looking after social and emotional wellbeing — especially substance abuse and mental health issues — and giving homeless youth permanence in their lives.
“It’s important for the homeless as a whole, but especially the youth to know that there is a community that backs them,” Kear said.
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Adam Legg works with marginalized people as executive director of Love Alaska. He said standing in the cold that evening was a minor gesture of support compared to the experience of homeless youth in Anchorage.
“You know, my wife and I put on our warmest clothes to come out here tonight, right? And after this is over, we’ll go back to our warm house, but these youth don’t have that option, except Covenant House,” Legg said.
Covenant House is located at 755 A St. Their number is 907-272-1255.
More information can be found at ak.covenanthouse.org.