Homelessness: Defying the odds

At any given time, there are approximately 3,000 homeless individuals and families with young children in Anchorage. The average age of Anchorage’s homeless population is below the age of 10.

Project Homeless Connect, which falls under the umbrella of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, is a yearly event that provides, all under one roof, the opportunity of receiving help and services to those who are homeless or are facing homelessness.

Trevor Storrs, Anchorage Project Homeless coordinator, says, “On average, an individual will have to travel up to 15 miles to get all the services that they may need to prevent their homelessness or get out of homelessness, and it can be very challenging and very overwhelming, which can sometimes be a deterrent or barrier for people accessing services. Whereas for this event, people only have to walk a few feet to get all the services offered.”

UAA Business Management student Jeff Stewart’s family faced homelessness in 1994 when he was 14. Stewart’s father had just separated from the military and transferred from Rammstein, Germany, to Anchorage, Alaska. The only employment Stewart’s father could find was in a halfway house, which gave him a room, but his family was left living in a six-person tent at a homeless camp. Their tent included a one-burner propane stove, a propane heater and a cooler for keeping their food covered and protected.

During the time they lived in the homeless camp, Stewart and his mom earned money to purchase food by doing odd jobs for people who lived at the camp, such as dishes, throwing away trash, cleaning up campsites and cutting firewood. Stewart also earned extra money by selling chopped firewood and looking for lost fishing lures downtown and reselling them to fishermen. During times when money was extra tight and food scarce, Stewart and his mother would hunt for wild mushrooms, herbs and berries in order to survive.

Stewart worked hard to save $3,000 to attend UAA. However, that money did not last long. Once enrolled in classes he learned about the FAFSA and was able to receive grants. Stewart is also going through a program called the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation to help pay for classes, books and supplies. In the past, it has been difficult for him to afford everything he needs for classes.

“The struggles I have now with school were that even though I was given the grants for school, I couldn’t afford the books for my classes. It’s hard to do the things needed in the class when you don’t have the book. It seems like the school keeps coming up with things that we have to buy, or else fail the class,” Stewart said.

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Stewart has been able to forgive his father for putting his family through the hardship of living in a homeless camp and does not want others to judge his father’s actions. Stewart said his father lived a hard life and had to do what he had to do.

Keoki Tafaoialii, who is currently homeless, attended this year’s event. Tafaoialii described what his day-to-day life as a displaced person looks like.

“A day in the life of the homeless person is filled with routine. You usually get up, get breakfast wherever it is you can — unless, of course, you have food stamps and you can go and get your own. But pretty much take advantage of any place that you can get a free breakfast at. I live over there at the Rescue Mission so they serve breakfast up there, which is pretty good. And then I usually end up walking downtown because I don’t have a bus pass. The Rescue Mission is up on Tudor, and I walk all the way downtown. It’s a little bit of a walk, but I don’t mind it. … (I) catch up on the local gossip that’s happening down here at the downtown shelter, because I know a lot more people down here. Then I usually head over to the transit center, and from there, hop a bus to mid-town and go ahead and go to the library, spend an hour using their computer, then hit the job center and go through the rigmarole there. By the time I’m done with all that, it’s about ready to head back for line-up.”

Tafaoialii struggles daily with his situation and said that when one finds his- or herself in a situation like this, he or she wakes up everyday thinking, “How the hell did this happen to me? Why am I in this situation? I had it good before, didn’t know what it was that I had before and depression kind of sets in. And so it’s pretty much getting over you’re depression, and getting yourself motivated to go out there and do something about it.”

UAA Human Services Major Jack Runser volunteered at the event last week through his internship with Access Alaska. “Access Alaska, you know their goal and mission is to help disabled persons, and a lot of homeless people themselves have disabilities, and many also have mental disabilities. So that’s why we’re here,” Runser said.

Anchorage has several shelters for homeless, individuals and families, but space is limited. Storrs said, “We don’t want people to be homeless. They don’t need emergency shelter. They need permanent housing, and we are very short on truly affordable permanent housing in our state, and specifically in Anchorage.”

If facing homelessness or other hardships, there is a hotline that can be called. 211 will do an initial intake and connect homeless to services they are eligible for. Though the big event is a yearly function, 211 is a similar idea to have accessible all services offered in one easy place.