Building a Successful, Caring Community
by Alison Kear

ore than 20 years ago, I signed up as a volunteer at Covenant House Alaska – the only shelter for youth experiencing homelessness in the Southcentral region of the state – and it changed the trajectory of my life. I was so inspired by the young people I met that I decided to make a career here and contribute however I could to building and improving not just our programs, but all the systems and services for young people in Anchorage.

My community had to face some hard truths about our longstanding problem of chronic homelessness. Everything we had been doing was focused on stopping the suffering that comes with homelessness, meeting people’s basic needs and trying to prevent early mortality. What became apparent was that we had to get in front of the problem rather than simply react to it. Creating the right services and interventions for youth at an early age, before years of complex trauma makes stability so much more difficult to achieve, seemed the only way to lift people out of a terrible cycle. I had already seen enough of where that path leads. Every time one of our youth was lost to the dangers of the street, it broke every heart on my team.

Staying homeless for long all but guarantees that kids and youth will face repeated trauma and become targets for exploitation, driving them farther into isolation and just-survive-the-day lifestyles in which childhood dreams start to seem more like distant fantasies. There is no stopping adult homelessness without first addressing youth homelessness and all the factors that lead to this unacceptable reality.

Getting Started
The first partnership we established was with Carol Gore and the Cook Inlet Housing Authority. Despite our services then having little in common, we identified a shared goal to end youth homelessness – and we ran with it. Nearly 10 years ago, they purchased and donated the land that would allow us to further our mission. On this property in downtown Anchorage, we built the Youth Engagement Center in 2013. My project manager, Shawn Holdridge, must have gotten sick of my name appearing on his phone during that time, but I am still proud of what was built. I know he forgives me.
Image of Building
Assessing and Addressing Barriers
The Youth Engagement Center is unlike anything in our city, or in the lower 48 for that matter. Like many vulnerable populations, the majority of our kids and young adults need services like counseling for mental illness and substance addiction, education and employment support, and basic healthcare if they are going to successfully remain out of homelessness. We live in a city with limited public transportation, in which the agencies that provide these services are spread out around town, which is a real barrier to success for a young person who is actively homeless or living in a shelter. The Youth Engagement Center, which houses our emergency shelter program and includes offices in the common area for nine other youth-serving agencies, gives young people what they need all in one place.
Working Forward
We knew that the Youth Engagement Center would eventually need to provide even more through our one-stop model. The land purchased by Cook Inlet Housing Authority allowed for this future adaptation, with a 10,000-square foot expansion footprint added into the initial design. We also foresaw that to accomplish our goal of making any experience of youth homelessness a rare, brief, one-time occurrence, housing would have to be an integral part of the solution. Recently, it became apparent that one of these future concepts was actually an answer to the other. Despite all that is going on in the world, and in fact because of it, we have decided the time to act is right now.
The Layers of Disruption
COVID-19 stunned people across the planet. Suddenly, all of us were walking around with a pervasive sense of uncertainty and fear, knowing there was danger somewhere nearby but not knowing from which direction it would come. What few people realize is that our young people live and breathe that anxiety and uncertainty every day, never knowing when or where or if they will be safe. For many of them, it has been a constant throughout their childhoods and has disrupted their lives in profound ways. No young person comes to us with the same story, and our approaches to serving them must be equally as various and fluid.

Our young adults have told us that moving straight from a shelter into independent housing was an intimidating leap that would be less scary if it happened in more moderate stages. Again led by support from our partners at Cook Inlet Housing Authority, beginning in 2021 our footprint will expand to include 22 micro-unit apartments physically onsite at the Youth Engagement Center. Each youth will have their own unit, their own key, a private entrance, and the increased freedom and responsibility that comes with independent living, while still on the same campus as the treatment and services provided by Covenant House Alaska or our partners.

In addition to our existing transitional living programs, and our Rapid Rehousing program that helps young people move into their own apartments around Anchorage, the micro-units will add to our long-term housing options for young adults. While some youth in Anchorage still need emergency shelter as a gateway to further services, many are stable enough not to be in a shelter setting and would be better served in this version of more independent living. We are further motivated to pursue this model of housing as it provides increased safety and health in the new reality of rapidly evolving infectious diseases. It will be all the more important for vulnerable populations to have their own spaces in which to better adhere to recommendations for hunkering down and maintaining cleanliness, which is more difficult to manage in congregate settings. As we have transitioned to a more housing-based approach, we have seen that a safe, stable place to live is the most necessary precursor to further success in all forms. We are dedicated to this upstream investment in our youth both for their sake and as a way to better utilize limited resources during a time of incredible need.

CHA Summary of Mission and Services:
Covenant House Alaska’s mission is to serve any and all youth experiencing homelessness or trafficking with absolute respect and unconditional love. As the only shelter and service provider for youth in the Southcentral region of Alaska, we serve any youth who walks through our doors, 24/7, without question or cost. On any given night, we provide shelter or housing to 159 young people. We serve more than a thousand individual youth each year through all our programs, which include shelter, transitional living, help with housing, education and employment, and onsite connection to local resources to address any and all barriers to stability.
Investing in a Future of Hope
Our communities and our nation have had to stop in their tracks this year and re-envision how to help people in order to avoid worst-case outcomes. It was our decision to use this as a chance to make the shifts we had already identified as next steps toward our ultimate goal. One day, Covenant House Alaska won’t be a shelter at all. Instead, we want to someday be known as an amazing education and employment center that offers housing. Each youth will get exactly what they need now so that they can give back in the future as stable, successful members of our community.
Unity in Community
If I can give any advice to leaders around the world, it is that you cannot do your important work alone. We must have open communication directly with the people we serve to identify the right paths forward, and those paths must be as diverse as the stories that lead people to hardship in the first place. We must reach out to each other and establish partnerships, strong bonds and unified strategies. We must hold ourselves accountable, maintain high-quality data to best inform our strategies, and strive to achieve equitable outcomes for all people that we serve.

There are three critical steps that can help achieve objectives with leaders setting the pace and path

  1. Define your goals.
    Find others who share them and who want to share in the hard work.
  2. Identify the challenges.
    Analyze the situations you have faced and the solutions you created.
  3. Share, collaborate and create a brain trust.
    Don’t keep information quiet such that others have to learn the same lessons the hard way.

We all get farther if we help each other. I have seen what can happen when multiple agencies are able to focus on their specialization in collaborative service. We believe the model we are building is not only replicable across the nation, but necessary to provide the most impact with limited resources, especially in communities like ours struggling with recession.

I love the youth at Covenant House Alaska. It has been the great honor of my life to help them become the best version of themselves while striving to build a future they can see and reach, and to work alongside so many others who share this dedication. Through continued long-term partnerships, our programs will make the experience of homelessness a brief challenge from which our youth can recover quickly, a source of connection to our community, and an opportunity to build resilience and strength in our state’s next generation of compassionate leadership.

Image of Alison Kear
Alison Kear volunteered at Covenant House Alaska in 1997 as a grant writer, later becoming the Development Director, and then Executive Director in 2012. She is a member of the 2019-2021 class of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Children and Family Fellowship and serves on the Board for the National Network for Youth. She has undergraduate degrees in behavioral health and counseling and a Master of Arts with an emphasis in Health Administration.

Alison Kear volunteered at Covenant House Alaska in 1997 as a grant writer, later becoming the Development Director, and then Executive Director in 2012. She is a member of the 2019-2021 class of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Children and Family Fellowship and serves on the Board for the National Network for Youth. She has undergraduate degrees in behavioral health and counseling and a Master of Arts with an emphasis in Health Administration.