At Anchorage’s shelter for moms and kids, community support is key

SPONSORED: For nearly 40 years, Clare House has provided Anchorage mothers and children with support and resources to make their way out of homelessness.

Presented by ConocoPhillips Alaska

Ask any Anchorage resident to name the city’s most pressing issues, and odds are good that homelessness will rank near the top of the list.

Often overlooked in the discussion about how to help unhoused Alaskans is one of the most vulnerable populations: women with children. But for nearly four decades, there has been one Anchorage nonprofit that has been specializing exclusively in helping mothers with families get back on their feet -- Clare House.

Like other shelters, Clare House provides fundamental services to people in need.

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“It’s a safety net shelter,” said Robin Dempsey, chief program officer for Catholic Social Services, which operates Clare House. “It’s really there to make sure that people are getting their basic needs met: a warm shelter, a hot meal, safety.”

Beyond that, however, there are some qualities that set Clare House apart from other Anchorage social services providers. Foremost among these is the demographic it serves. To be eligible to stay at Clare House, you must be a woman 18 or older who is without a home and who has dependent children (or is pregnant). Families are housed together as they work toward the ultimate goal of independence.

“We’re really working to help women and children move toward permanent stability,” Dempsey said. “When they’re in shelter, we do that by connecting them to different resources.”

In addition to food, shelter and community, Clare House provides an in-house case management service to help connect residents to resources and plan concrete steps toward permanent housing.

“Clare House has been a central part of Catholic Social Services’ mission to really ensure that we can end homelessness in the community and the state,” said Lisa Bruner, ConocoPhillips Alaska’s vice president for development for North Slope operations and a member of Catholic Social Services’ board of directors.

Providing trauma-informed support

Women come to Clare House under many different circumstances.

“The thing to think about with homelessness in general is that it’s so complex,” Dempsey said. “No two stories really are the same. Sometimes it’s a domestic violence situation. Sometimes it’s just an issue of generational poverty.”

Regardless of how it happens, being without a permanent home is both a cause of trauma and, in many cases, a result of past traumas. That’s a primary consideration in the way Clare House supports its residents.

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“Our service model is a trauma-informed care model,” Dempsey said. Clare House staff work to build empowering, trusting and collaborative relationships with the people they serve, mindful of the experiences and circumstances that residents carry with them.

In fiscal year 2021, of the 220 people who stayed at Clare House, 150 were children -- 60 of them under the age of five. Homelessness and poverty are traumatic for children even without the additional stressors many residents bring with them, such as domestic violence or experiences with the Office of Children’s Services. For the kids who stay at Clare House, stability is key to helping them navigate that trauma, and one of the best places to find stability is at school. Clare House works with the Anchorage School District’s Child in Transition program to help maintain consistent enrollment for its young residents.

“We want to make sure that those kids can remain in their home schools,” Dempsey said.

There aren’t enough words to describe how important it is to provide a safe environment and stability for kids, she added.

“People always talk about how resilient kids are, and I think that’s very true -- but when you’re experiencing trauma, especially repeated trauma, that can affect your brain development,” Dempsey said. “There’s the potential for them to see the world and perceive the world around them in a very different way. Being trauma-informed really does address those issues.”

Soon Clare House parents will have another resource with the addition of a program called Strengthening Families. During weekly “parent cafes,” participants will give and receive peer support as they work with trained facilitators on protective factors like communication and recognizing and understanding their community support system.

“It’s an evidence-based practice,” Dempsey said. “It’s a program that really is about … ending generational poverty, ending homelessness for children.”

There’s one more critical component of Clare House’s trauma-informed approach: There is no time limit for residency at the shelter. As long as a family is eligible, they can stay until they’re ready to go.

“One of the things we want to make sure of is: When somebody comes to Clare House, they’re not under this cloud of having to leave,” Dempsey said. “There’s no deadline.” The shelter’s staff helps each resident do what she needs to do to feel prepared to set out on her own.

A lifetime partnership

Since it opened its doors in 1982, there is one thing that has never changed about Clare House: its relationship with ConocoPhillips Alaska. Since 1982, ConocoPhillips Alaska has provided the shelter more than $1.9 million in support, along with countless volunteer hours and employee-led coat, clothing and housekeeping drives.

“ConocoPhillips has been such a strong partner since the very beginning,” said Molly Cornish, community engagement director for Catholic Social Services. “They always provide us with a grant. This year they said, ‘You know what? We want to take this a step further.’”

For 2021, ConocoPhillips Alaska pledged to match Clare House donations received in the month of November, up to $100,000. By mid-November, the original $100,000 goal had been met, according to a spokesperson for ConocoPhillips, and the company increased its match offer to $150,000.

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Along with the boost to the bottom line, the campaign provides Clare House with some extra visibility and promotion, Cornish said -- more awareness that directly benefits mothers and children in need.

“It’s been so amazing to see this outpouring of support,” Cornish said. “Every dollar that comes from the community, every gift for Christmas, every volunteer hour -- those things go to building permanent support for these families.”

The work that Clare House does is “very aligned” with ConocoPhillips’ mission of driving bright, stable futures for Alaska communities, Bruner said.

“When we work in a community, we absolutely become a member of the community,” she said. “That’s really important to us. We have strong shared values, and helping our neighbors is really core to who we are.”

The campaign’s success underscores the value of engaging the community in the effort, added.

“It’s one thing for a company like us to make a donation,” Bruner said. “What I think is really important is to bring the community together in support of a very important effort. It’s a way to communicate and educate people and, at the same time, involve others in the work. It reaffirms that there really is good happening in the community. It creates a ripple effect.”

It also speaks to Anchorage’s community-wide sense of kindness and empathy, she added.

“The generosity that we see in people here is unmatched,” Bruner said. “I just think it’s fantastic.”

Whether through the support of corporations like ConocoPhillips Alaska, individual contributions, or the many volunteers who plan, prepare and serve more than 25,000 meals at the shelter each year, it’s that giving spirit that makes Clare House’s work possible, Cornish added.

“We’re just the place,” she said. “The community -- they’re the people that do the work. We cannot say thank you enough.”

Donors can participate in ConocoPhillips’ fundraising match online at CSSAlaska.org or by mailing or dropping off a check to Catholic Social Services, 3710 E. 20th Ave., Anchorage, Alaska 99508. If donating by check, please note in the memo line that the contribution is for the ConocoPhillips Clare House grant.

https://www.cssalaska.org/creating-home-conocophillips-alaska-match/

Presented by ConocoPhillips Alaska, a proud supporter of Clare House and many other organizations that improve the quality of life in the communities where we live and work.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with ConocoPhillips Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.