Richard had been living in a tent for more than two years when the COVID-19 pandemic began last year.
He and his wife were homeless, camped out in the woods in Midtown Anchorage, and not sure where they could go from there.
“You get stuck in the rut, basically, after a while,” Richard said. (His last name has been withheld to protect his privacy.) “Then it gets harder to get out of the rut, and then after a while it feels impossible.”
As it turned out, what he really needed was someone to help him get traction.
Removing barriers to employment
About three years ago, Richard and his wife Andrea were abruptly evicted from their home after their landlord died and his adult children reneged on a deal to pay the couple for work they had done on the property.
“It was a bummer,” Richard said. “I had to carry all our stuff (out) on a dolly.”
For the next couple of years, he and Andrea got by on occasional day labor jobs as they moved from park to park before ending up in the woods near the Sullivan Arena. It was a dangerous and stressful way to live, but it was hard to find steady employment without a permanent address.
Theirs is not an unusual story, said Holly Morales, senior director for employment and training services at Cook Inlet Tribal Council. Morales oversees programs that provide educational and training opportunities, financial assistance, and other supports to help remove barriers to employment and education. The aim is to offer “whole family wraparound services,” she said, because all of the factors that impact a family -- housing, education, child care, employment -- are so interconnected.
“When you’re trying to connect with employment, (those are) a lot of those barriers that get in the way of you entering the workforce,” Morales said. “It’s really difficult to hold down a full-time job if you are homeless.”
It’s even harder to find one in the first place, since being without a home often means being without any way to find or apply for work.
“In order for people to connect with employment opportunities, the first thing you need is a phone,” Morales said. “You need access to computers in order to be able to build a resume. The housing is a huge piece of it, but that’s just one of many pieces.”
Last year, more than 3,900 people participated in CITC training and employment services programs, according to Morales, Alaskans who needed anything from child care or job-appropriate clothing to a GED course or utility assistance. CITC provides case managers and job coaches to help them develop and stick to a career plan.
“Sometimes we will assist (program) participants who maybe have been out of the workforce for a little while,” Morales said. “Are we looking for a new career? Do you need training? It just depends on where the family’s at.”
‘I’m looking for a career.’
Take Melvin Captain, for instance, who sought assistance through CITC’s Anchorage Youth Services program. A recent transplant to Anchorage from Ruby, Captain had a broad variety of experience -- wildland firefighting, an internship with First Alaskans Institute, work with the Tanana Chiefs Conference -- but was having a hard time translating his background and skills to the right job prospect.
“I applied to over 110 jobs,” Captain said. “I applied for jobs from director (level) to working in fast food.”
Out of work and off his feet as he recovered from surgery, Captain was in need of some financial assistance to help him get to interviews, and just as importantly, he needed some help focusing his job search and marketing himself.
“A lot of my work had been seasonal or contract work or temporary,” Captain said. “I was running into a barrier that I had never had a full-time job, like 365 (days a year).”
That led him to CITC, where he took advantage of workshops on employment-related topics and Alaska Native culture.
“My approach was, if I can’t work right now, I’m going to enhance my brain power,” Captain said. “That’s what helped me get through the bad days.”
There was one more dimension to his job search: his son, who was born early in the pandemic.
“It’s no longer just me I’m looking after,” Captain said. “I have to get a safe place, I have to get a reliable vehicle. My whole perspective on life changed. I’m no longer just looking for a paycheck -- I’m looking for a career.”
Like Captain, many of CITC’s program participants are hoping for more fulfillment and job security, so education is a key consideration. CITC offers a GED program, adult education and vocational training grants, along with the workshops that Captain explored during his job search.
“We do financial management, we do ‘job search 101,’ we have interviewing basics and beyond, and healthy relationships, communication, workplace professionalism and career exploration,” Morales said. “We have been adding some cultural workshops. It’s really a wide range.”
It has to be, she added. In the wake of Alaska’s economic recession and fallout from the pandemic, there are people of all ages and experience levels finding themselves looking for work.
“There’s not a cookie-cutter approach to how we serve (program) participants,” Morales said. “Every single person who walks through our doors is unique and has different needs.”
In Captain’s case, those needs were some help refining his resume to better showcase his abilities -- and a cheering section. His career coaches took care of both.
“They gave me a boost,” Captain said. “It was just nice to have that support.”
Earlier this year, with the help of his job coach, he found a position with Mount Sanford Tribal Consortium. It’s the kind of opportunity he might not have known how to look for, or how to market himself for, if he had been searching on his own.
“Whenever I tell people my job title, which is ‘community engagement specialist,’ they’re kind of like ‘What is that? Where do you go to school for that?’” Captain said.
What it really means is that he gets to travel to rural communities, connect with young people, share his culture, participate in subsistence activities, and provide for his son at the same time. The perfect job was out there -- he just needed to find it and demonstrate how right he was for it.
“It just took a lot of patience, people skills, and a lot of just not giving up, honestly,” Captain said.
Taking services to the people
While some job-hunters seek out assistance of their own accord, others don’t know there’s help available. Last year, in an effort to reach more of those Alaskans, CITC established a presence at the Sullivan Arena mass shelter.
“I think what we’re realizing, especially with the work that we did at the Sullivan Arena, especially when you’re working with the homeless population at a shelter, the best service is if you can bring the service to them,” Morales said.
Many people who experience homelessness would like to find steady employment, she added, but they face barriers like lack of transportation, internet access and phone service.
“The people who we’re serving, they really do want to be self-sufficient,” Morales said. “They do want to have employment. They do want to have a job that they’re proud of. Helping others see that potential and giving people a chance is also really important.”
It was at the Sullivan Arena that Richard and Andrea connected with the CITC programs that got them out of their tent and into jobs. They quickly learned they were eligible for transitional housing, and before they knew it, they were moving into a hotel.
“We felt relieved to get out of the shelter,” Richard said. “The first night we got into the hotel room, we felt instantly comfortable.”
Next, they were directed to Bean’s Cafe, one of a number of Anchorage-area employers that hires people leaving homelessness with salaries subsidized by CITC. It’s a program that helps remove some of the hurdles and prejudices faced by people coming out of homelessness.
“That’s been really helpful,” Morales said. “It gives employers an opportunity to see their skills.”
Within a few months, Richard and Andrea were working side-by-side, preparing meals at The Children’s Lunchbox. They’ve been on the job for about a year now, and have moved into their own apartment. They have enough money to live on for the first time in a long time, and they like that they’re helping people, too.
“I’m really happy where I’m working,” Richard said. “It feeds a lot of kids.”
Often, Morales said, all people like Richard and Andrea need is an advocate. In their case, once CITC got them into the right programs, all the pieces fell into place -- it was just a matter of making the connection.
“They were so motivated,” Morales said. “They just needed a chance.”
Cook Inlet Tribal Council provides an array of integrated service programs designed to help Alaska Native people and their families achieve their full potential. CITC’s Employment and Training Services Department assists participants in achieving self-sufficiency by helping them find meaningful and sustainable employment as they progress through lifestyle changes and enhance their communication, life management, vocational and academic skills. Learn more at citci.org/employment-training.
This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Cook Inlet Tribal Council. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.