Homelessness just a few missteps away for many in Alaska

The New York TimesDecember 9, 2013 

SOLDOTNA, Alaska - People come to Kenai Peninsula for the natural beauty or for an Alaskan escape from the routines that shape life in fussier places.

There are good oil industry jobs, and a Russian patina hangs over the landscape in the names of the small towns and a few orthodox churches that keep the flame alive. When the salmon are running on the Kenai River, you can pull them in until your arms are sore, people here are fond of saying.

But those bounties of nature, which have drawn settlers and fortune seekers since the days of Captain Cook, also mask a hard reality. When someone’s life goes awry, through a misstep or a spousal betrayal, a job loss or an eviction, or just a stretch of bad luck, there is not much of a safety net here.

“This is a great area to raise families; it has wonderful, positive things,” said Cathy Giessel, a state senator who represents part of the peninsula. “But folks can be shut out of jobs pretty easily by making bad choices.”

The towns of the peninsula - mostly just dots on a map of a few thousand people in a dense landscape of woods and rivers - make up a sort of middle path in Alaskan life, with an ebb and flow of seasonal service jobs at fishermen’s motels and strip malls. There are upward opportunities and working-wage jobs for people with skills. But the downward pull of drugs, alcohol and poverty is always there, too, residents say.

Amanda Guillemette knows how thin the ice can be. She is back on her feet now, with a job at the Soldotna Dairy Queen since March and a warm rented house. But the day that began her odyssey into homelessness four years ago still resonates.

She was nine months pregnant with her fifth child when the family she was living with forced her to leave. Guillemette, 35, credits the public school system, which reached out to her through a homeless liaison program. It saved her and her children, she said, by connecting them with state aid programs and providing emergency assistance when the going was darkest.

“Things happen for a reason,” she said with stoic calm in an interview at the school district’s offices. “I’ve gotten stronger.”

In Alaska’s deeply rural villages, where no roads penetrate and many families are interconnected through blood or culture, homelessness is often dealt with in the old-fashioned way, with relatives or neighbors giving shelter to those in trouble. Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, has the state’s biggest homeless population by far, but also the biggest system of help and outreach.

On the Kenai, a struggling family or a teenager can escape notice against the vast landscape.

“Homelessness is a hidden problem,” said Steve Atwater, the superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula school district, where about 1 in 90 students are enrolled this year in a program to keep them in school, even if they have no permanent address. That number is down slightly from last year, and district officials suspect that the main reason is an unseasonably warm fall.

From 2011 to 2012, Alaska’s overall homeless rate declined 10 percent, according to a report this year by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a federation of organizations. But the number of chronically homeless people rose almost 21 percent, giving Alaska the ninth-highest increase in the nation.

Couch surfers, crashing with friends, often do not consider themselves homeless. And in a state where camping is both a way of life and part of the heritage, living in a tent in the woods might be by choice, or it might not be.

“We kind of called it camping,” said Tammy Miles, who lived in the woods in a tent for 132 days this summer - a number she repeated twice more with grim, tight-lipped finality - with her two autistic sons, ages 10 and 7, after her boyfriend of 13 years left her stranded and then homeless. She and the boys were in a family shelter - the only one in Kenai Borough, a county bigger than West Virginia - when it closed in June because of financial troubles, launching them into the wild. It was the family’s second eviction in a year.

On a recent afternoon, with the temperature topping out at about 6 degrees, a campsite just outside downtown looked ghostly in the frost. The occupants were gone, presumably indoors. A spatula and a can of pepper sat on a folding table by a small camp stove, ready for use. Were the campers there by choice, or were they homeless? On Kenai Peninsula, it can be hard to tell.

There is a sense that hunger, a more easily measured barometer of stress, is increasing. At the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank in the nearby town of Kenai, the number of people seeking free commodities like canned goods and rice is higher than at any time since 2010, when the recession was at its worst. A trend toward younger people and families coming in hungry has persisted, said Linda Swarner, the food bank’s executive director.

“The safety net, years ago, used to be more personal,” she said as volunteers served stew and cobbler for lunch. “People didn’t rely as much on governments or nonprofits.”

Miles, 42, got a job this fall as a cashier at a local Wal-Mart and said she felt stable as winter set in, with a house for her and her boys, Kyle and Koby. Her journey through homelessness, as wrenching as it was, also gave her a strange gift: Though she has no family in Alaska, having moved here from Utah with her ex-boyfriend a decade ago, she made friends with the 26 other families at the shelter before it closed.

It is a new social network, and they are trying, she said, to stay in touch as best they can.

 

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