The kid was stoned and the kid was cold. He wasn't having fun.
As he shivered behind shrubbery outside City Hall, a look of relief crossed his face when he saw the POWER Teen Center outreach team come around the corner.
It was a Friday night in early February. The kid, lightly dressed, was one of five youths passing a joint in one of many nooks and crannies in downtown Anchorage where street kids hide just out of plain sight.
"I'm freezing, yo," he said. "You got any gloves tonight? Any hats?"
One of the outreach workers reached in a backpack and gave him both, then handed out granola bars, packs of nuts and bottled water.
POWER stands for Peer Outreach Worker Education and Referral. The program operates a drop-in center for homeless and other at-risk youths and employs teenage outreach workers, most of whom are formerly homeless and abuse survivors.
Four nights a week, the outreach workers hit the pavement in two-person teams. They hand out warm clothing, hygiene items, and food and water. They distribute information about social agencies that serve "at-risk" youths.
That includes POWER, which operates from a space on the second floor of the Downtown Transit Center on Sixth Avenue. Open from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, the drop-in center has a food pantry and computers for updating Facebook pages, searching for a job or doing homework. Three days a week a nurse is on site. A University of Alaska graduate student provides psychological counseling.
Alaska Youth Advocates, the nonprofit agency that runs the program, has a housing specialist on staff who helps youths access transitional living programs or find affordable apartments.
The core of the program, though, is peer-to-peer interactions between the youths on staff and the kids who come through the door.
"Our guiding philosophy is 'by teens, for teens,' because youths will confide in other youths in ways they often will not confide in adults," said Alaska Youth Advocates Executive Director Heather Harris. "A lot of our clients have little or no family support, so making peer support available to them is essential to helping them lead a healthier life."
The center has a lounge area with couches, a television and a video game system where teenage staffers hang out and build rapport with clients.
"On the surface it might seems like a cushy job ... But in reality, if you're doing the job right, and you're non-prying and non-judgmental, people are going to start confiding some pretty heavy info. Like, 'I'm thinking about killing myself,' or 'I'm being pimped out,' " said POWER case manager Rebecca Shier, 22, a former client.
"In this job a situation can go from video games to really serious in a minute."
Between 15 and 35 youths spend time at the drop-in center every day it's open. About half are regulars. Almost 4,500 youths sought services at the center in the 2012 fiscal year.
Estimating the number of homeless youths in Anchorage is tricky, in large part because homeless kids tend to be intermittently homeless, rather than full-time homeless. They cycle in and out of emergency foster home placements. They couch surf. They pool money for cheap motel rooms. Some practice "survival sex," trading their bodies for shelter and food. They may not be sleeping on the streets but their living situations are hardly stable or safe.
Some hard numbers give an idea of how many street kids there are in Anchorage in addition to drop-in center visits.
Covenant House Alaska, which provides emergency shelter for youths in crisis, serves about 1,900 homeless teens a year, according to a 2010 study by the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Institute of Social and Economic Research.
A 2012 report by the Anchorage School District identified 3,800 homeless children in Anchorage but that includes grade-school-age kids as well as teenagers.
The UAA/ISER report makes clear the challenges that street kids in Anchorage face. Forty-six percent of Covenant House residents in 2010 had been sexually abused, the study found. Forty percent had been in a residential mental health treatment facility and a third had recently been in foster care.
Mental illness linked to childhood sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse is a common factor in the great majority of youths who seek help from POWER counselor Jolene Greenland, a 27-year-old graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
"Most of the clients I deal with have a significant history of complex trauma caused by ongoing childhood abuse," Greenland said. "Often they come to see me in acute crisis mode. I try to help them stabilize, then instill hope and get them to concentrate on future goals."
Greenland began working 20 to 25 hours a week at the center last September.
"I figured out that before I could effectively work with this population, I had to build relationships on a personal level, so I've gotten pretty good at karaoke and (the video game) Dance Dance Revolution," she said.
Every Friday is movie day at the drop-in center. On the first Friday in February, the PG-13 rated film of choice was the romantic comedy "What to Expect When You're Expecting."
Origami birds hung from the ceiling of the center. A client arranged poetry magnets on the food pantry fridge to read, "There are perfect friends who like you."
On a coffee table in the lounge was a notebook inscribed on the front with, "Dear Mr. Journal. Tell your stories here. Judgment free." One journal entry is about a teenaged girl agonizing over whether to have an abortion. She decides to have the baby. Another entry reads simply, "It's my Dad's fault he touched me."
A wall in the front of the 1,500-square-foot space displayed a large map of Alaska next to a sign that read, "Where does your family come from?" Pins in the map ranged from St. Lawrence Island to Sitka. Dozens marked Anchorage and the Mat-Su valley area. Handfuls showed Barrow, Kotzebue and Bethel. Single pins identified Sleetmute, Kivalina and other small villages.
The number of homeless Alaska Native youths in Anchorage is growing. The UAA/ISER study found that 39 percent of Covenant House clients in 2010 were Alaska Native, up from 20 percent in 1999.
Alaska Youth Advocates records show that 34 percent of POWER clients in the 2012 fiscal year were Alaska Native or American Indian. Twenty-seven percent were Caucasian and 20 percent were African-American, with the remaining 19 percent about evenly divided among Asian, Latino and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
POWER originated with an HIV-testing program that began in 1995 as an extension of now-defunct youth shelters run by Alaska Youth Advocates. The first workers didn't have a drop-in center or office. They performed blood draws on benches in the downtown bus station. Kids had to come back weeks later for results.
(The center still provides testing for sexually transmitted infections. Last year 75 clients tested positive for STIs, including 73 cases of Chlamydia. POWER offers free antibiotics to clients who test positive for treatable STIs. Its outreach workers distribute condoms on request.)
Before it moved to its current location two years ago, POWER was located in a 540-square-foot space on the first floor of the downtown bus station. The nurse's station in the cramped space was a cubicle with a plastic curtain.
"We turned up the music loud anytime someone needed to have a private conversation," Harris said. "Clients had to take paper bags to the public restroom for urine samples."
The upstairs space is luxurious by comparison, with private rooms for the nurse and counselor, and space in the back for racks of donated shoes and clothes, including winter coats.
When the movie ended on the recent Friday afternoon, clients and staff competed in an impromptu dance-off. The clear winner was Calesia Monroe, a 15-year-old outreach worker and peer counselor who first started coming to the center in mid-2011 as a client. She was hired on staff in late 2012.
"No matter what's going on in your life outside of here, when you come here, you're going to be feel better about it, because you can talk to someone here," she said. "You can make friends here. Friends make a difference. I made friends here; now I'm trying to offer my friendship in return."
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