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For youth who want off the streets, housing and employment go hand in hand

Michael P. Carson
OPINION: The solution for ending youth homelessness is housing and employment, and young people must have support at the critical time they decide to turn their lives around and leave the streets.
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There are bears in the woods, and they are different colors. I hope no one gets hurt. In those woods there is a homeless camp where young people from a wide range of age groups stay (14-30 years old), with some truly homeless and others just camping as if it was summer camp. I have seen that firsthand. Also, there are those who are just visiting their homeless friends. Visitors come and go on a regular basis, with more traffic on weekends and with sunny weather. Then, there are parents, (along with the police) coming and pulling out their own kids for obvious reasons. I have personally visited the camp a number of times. And, most unfortunately, there are some outsiders who have realized they can peddle their wares (drugs) to long-term and short-term campers and visitors. I hope no one gets assaulted, has an overdose, or the worst case, sex trafficked.

I can take heart that some truly homeless people will decide enough is enough and they want something different. But, I have to always remind myself, it is their journey, as to when they come to those crossroads. And, I have to remember, they are very hurt, feel unlovable, and unworthy of a better life.  Some are trapped in the grips of traumatic early experiences. I cannot even begin to comprehend those feelings of hopelessness and despair.  Sometimes, it can be masked with helplessness, a negative outlook or sense of entitlement. Yet, some are beginning to trust and ask for help. I can take heart.

There is a lot of prejudice that somehow they caused their past. It must be demoralizing. Many homeless youth did not deserve what happened to them. Life sometimes is not fair. Yet, the message is you don’t have to allow the past to control the future. And, going home is not a solution or option for many, and finding a job is tough.  

So, the sustainable solution for homelessness is housing and employment. That’s our part and exactly how we can be helpful. With a full continuum of care, in regards to housing, (emergency, transitional, and affordable), we can help those who want to help themselves. And, we have to be ready when they make that decision to engage and cooperate with caring and supportive adults. Now comes a critical juncture. It is to provide them with options of housing (crisis, dorm-style, host homes or supervised apartments) to own their own new decision and direction and to live by different choices. This new constructive action comes with case management and personal responsibility, education, or job skills and most importantly, employment. Housing and employment must go hand in hand.

The 2014 ‘Out of Reach‘ report by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition says that to afford a one-bedroom in the Mat-Su Valley at fair market value, one must make at least $15 an hour, with 30 percent paid for housing. And a two-bedroom would require a salary of $21 an hour.  Obviously, a minimum wage of $8 will not pay the bill. We can still provide housing if it is subsidized and the youth pays 30 percent of whatever their wages to the cost of housing, until they become stable over a period of time. But they will also need financial training during this period of time. Remember, these homeless youth have never had the opportunity to even save money much less have a checking account and pay bills.

We also need to engage unions and trades to provide apprentice programs. There are programs that provide commercial and construction training, but those costs are out of reach for homeless youth. If potential employers would sign a letter of intent for employment, then scholarships and grants could be used to complete their training. These youth need career and technical training to gain a foot-hold to pull themselves out of homelessness, but now, they are wearing beat-up, wet tennis shoes without any support. We can provide a hand up now, with an investment in prevention, or pay later and pay much more later.

There is a simpler idea for those wanting to help and help now. You could volunteer at MyHouse in Mat-Su. We have a dinner hour (Mon.-Fri., 3-4 p.m.) that provides an opportunity to sit down to have a sane, quiet and understanding conversation with homeless youth. They have lost those vital relationships. It will take time for them to trust again. They need a sense someone cares. Also, if you have any opportunities for yard work or other general day labor, please consider posting on our bulletin board.

And always keep in mind that it is their journey. Yet, we can be there and be ready when they decide to take a different direction and get out from underneath being homeless. No matter what has happened in their past, they can have a better future. They are our youth. And there are too many bears of different colors in those woods.

Join the good fight at MyHouse. All are welcome. If you have any questions, please call us at 373-4357.

Michael P. Carson is vice president of MyHouse, a drop-in center offering employment assistance and a variety of basic services for homeless and runaway youth.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.