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Coronavirus adds new stressors on Alaska’s vulnerable youths and young adults

Benjamin Miller, 20, stands outside his East Anchorage home on Thursday, April 2, 2020. Miller is staying with people who have applied to be his emergency foster family. An anthropology student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Miller scrambled to find housing after the UAA dorms largely closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. He entered the foster system when he was 17 and is attending the University of Alaska on a scholarship. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Benjamin Miller’s life was rocky but mostly on track. The 20-year-old University of Alaska Anchorage student is one of 3,144 Alaska youths in foster care.

Miller went to Washington for spring break. When he got back, the anthropology student said he scrambled to move out of his dorm in one day because of the coronavirus pandemic. The room held his every possession.

“It was pretty messy, pretty hectic,” said Miller.

But Miller was lucky. He knew someone who worked at UAA who had a spare bedroom in East Anchorage. The people he is staying with are now becoming licensed to be emergency foster parents, he said.

He lost his on-campus job at the student union and currently has no income. But Miller feels grateful to have a roof over his head.

Ryan Hill, UAA’s interim director of residence life, would not discuss Miller’s case specifically but said the university has made exemptions for students to stay on campus if they have nowhere to go.

“While our goal has been to have as small of a residential population as possible for safety reasons, we would not ask a student to move off campus who identified to us they would be homeless or their home was not a safe place to return to,” Hill said.

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But the pandemic is putting new pressures on foster kids and other young Alaskans with tenuous living situations. While most Alaskans are hunkering down at home with loved ones, many older foster kids and homeless youths are trying to find shelter or remain employed, according to service providers.

Students at boarding schools, the Alaska Military Youth Academy and Job Corps have reached out for help, said Amanda Metivier, executive director of the nonprofit Facing Foster Care in Alaska and associate director of the Office of Youth Empowerment at UAA.

Besides finding them places to stay, the nonprofit is fundraising and sending electronic gift cards to foster kids in need.

Housing is getting tougher to find because some foster families are reluctant to accept new kids for fear of catching COVID-19, said Metivier.

She and her board have asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy to impose a temporary moratorium on foster care restrictions, which limits benefits to kids once they turn 21.

The state Office of Children’s Services is considering the request and “is committed to ensuring that all youth aging out of foster care have a plan to successfully transition to independent living," said director Natalie Norberg.

Her employees, many of them frontline social workers, are only making in-person contact with foster children in emergency situations until the end of the month, according to a March 31 memo from Norberg.

Ethan Harvey, 19, a foster kid and freshman at UAA, contacted Metivier and his independent living specialist to find alternative shelter as his dorm emptied out.

"I was thankful that one of the homes was open,” said Harvey, who described himself as a scholarship student and former high school valedictorian from Prince of Wales Island.

With schools closed statewide, many students lost their safety net. And with thousands of adults and teens losing their jobs, the economic hardship is affecting children, too, making many more vulnerable to abuse or becoming homeless.

Children who have been couch surfing are suddenly finding themselves no longer welcome in households trying to avoid COVID-19, according to Metivier.

Beds are set up in a conference room at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless, runaway and at-risk youth, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 in Anchorage. The shelter is converting conference rooms and offices into temporary shelter space, preparing for an influx of youth due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Loren Holmes / ADN)
Youth encouragement counselor Ortega Thomas and Dash Togi, youth task force coordinator, in a common area at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless, runaway and at-risk youth, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 in Anchorage. The shelter is converting conference rooms and offices into temporary shelter space, preparing for an influx of youth due to the coronavirus pandemic. Thomas and Togi have been planning extra activities for youth at the shelter, such as games and events including a talent show and karaoke, to keep the youth engaged while at the shelter. The goal, said Togi, is to encourage the youth to spend more time at the shelter during the day so that they reduce their exposure to the novel coronavirus. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

As shelter-in-place orders remain in place, national law enforcement agencies and relief organizations like UNICEF say domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abuse and online exploitation of kids will rise.

Those are some of the top reasons why children show up at Anchorage’s Covenant House shelter for homeless kids. Covenant House is gearing up for a new wave of young clients because of COVID-19, said Alison Kear, executive director.

Earlier this week, the shelter added rollaway beds with privacy drapes around them in offices and other parts of the building.

“Every day I pray that we can meet the need,” Kear said.

Nearly 60 young Alaskans served by Covenant House who had recently moved into apartments and landed entry-level jobs are now unemployed, looking for food and running low on supplies, she said.

Clarification: This story has been updated to include Metivier’s additional job title.

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