Fifteen-year-old Jeni Lachance approached Covenant House in downtown Anchorage and peered through the glass doors for her first glimpse inside a homeless shelter. She stood in the bleak November darkness, uncertain what to do though she had no alternatives.
“I was terrified,” said Lachance, now 35. “I felt like a really bad kid.”
She pushed through the front doors.
“They said, ‘Hi, welcome.’ They asked my name and asked how they could help. They asked if I was hungry, if I needed a place to stay,” Lachance recalled.
She ate a sandwich while they assessed her situation and immediate needs. They gave her pajamas and explained how she would catch the city bus the next morning to continue her schooling at West High School. Once her most urgent concerns were addressed, they showed her to her bedroom where three other girls were already sleeping.
“They took the normalcies of my life and still applied them even though I was in crisis,” Lachance said. “They made sure I felt welcome and safe.”
After school the following day, Lachance met with her caseworker, Mildred Mack. Jeni was not a delinquent, nor had she run away from home. Her terminally ill mom in Southern California could no longer care for her, and her father wasn’t up to parenting. So they shipped her one-way to Alaska to live with her dad’s sister in Anchorage. Lachance felt rejected and bitter about being forcibly separated from her mom, and she resented her aunt, who had no children of her own, for trying to replace her mom. After a falling out, her aunt left her at Covenant House that night to teach her a lesson.
Because Covenant House’s primary goal for cases not involving abuse is reunification with family, Mack mediated meetings between Lachance and her aunt, her nearest relative. She returned to her aunt’s home for a couple weeks before another rupture led to estrangement. Her aunt called each of Lachance’s parents on speakerphone and threatened to ship her back to them. She listened as her mother and her father swore they would not be there for her at the airport.
“It was pretty awful, but it validated my feeling of not being wanted,” she said. “I grabbed my backpack and I ran.”
She went to the only place she was welcome, Covenant House. It didn’t feel like running away so much as running home.
A GROWING CRISIS
Last year Covenant House Alaska harbored an average of 49 youth per night — the highest daily census in its almost 30-year history. A total of 675 young people received shelter and services there last year, from meals and medical attention to education and counseling.
Josh Louwerse had worked as youth pastor in Anchorage for five years and volunteered with at-risk youth and the homeless before he joined Covenant House in 2012 as the new street outreach case manager. A few nights a week, he would lead a team into the margins of the city and offer support to the homeless ages 13-21. Given his experience he didn’t expect to find many. But it turns out that the homeless youth in Anchorage are a bit like the bears that roam this city, in that they are undeniably present yet cautiously elusive, instinctively distrustful of people and mostly only noticed when they get into trouble.
“I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t know the scope of what was happening — I didn’t really have the eyes to see what was happing in our city,” Louwerse said of his first street outreach mission. “I found myself immersed in a world I didn’t know existed here, and started to see all the horrific things our youth experience out there.”
After fleeing from the Mat-Su Valley, the Kenai Peninsula, the Interior and as far as the Bush, more than a quarter of Alaska’s homeless youth fall prey to human traffickers and are enslaved for sex or labor before reaching Covenant House, according to recent studies that found Alaska’s rate of trafficked youth disproportionately high. Nearly half the female guests at Covenant House Alaska have experienced sexual abuse. Additionally many homeless youth are battling undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, and/or emotional or behavioral disorders stemming from abuse and neglect.
“What they need is a safe place to grow up, and they haven’t had that,” Louwerse said. “I believe in choices. We all make choices, but the kids I see have very few choices. They aren’t kids who didn’t work hard enough or pull themselves up in tough times.”
OFFERING A HAND UP
Whatever their past or present situations, kids can receive food and shelter and compassion 24/7 at Covenant House, a secure environment designed to foster healing and personal growth.
“I began to see that though these youth are in difficult places, they have so much to teach us about resiliency and hardship,” Louwerse said. “I settled into this place where I became almost a student to these people who are pushed aside and ignored. I started to recognize the strength it must take to survive.”
The average stay at Covenant House Alaska is 26 days. The drop-in center offers critical care in the form of a food pantry, showers, laundry facilities, clothing and computer access. If a youngster opts to stay, he or she is granted a thorough health exam and treatment at the primary care clinic just inside the entrance.
Residents will get to know fellow “Covey kid” Jeni Lachance, currently a day shift supervisor there. They’ll also meet some of the dedicated employees who became Lachance’s family over her years in and out of Covenant House, to include Alison Kear, now executive director, and Chief Operating Officer Carlette Mack, who is the daughter of Lachance’s original caseworker, Mildred Mack.
“It’s amazing and wonderful to see her (Mildred Mack) now. She gets to see my success and see me give back,” Lachance said. “These people at Covenant House showed me that I wasn’t a throw-away, that I was worth something. They really showed me what unconditional love is.”
The heart of Covenant House Alaska is the Youth Engagement Center, which is reminiscent of a student union building on a university campus. In addition to the drop-in center and the health clinic, the Youth Engagement Center features a large community room with a fireplace and tables and chairs around the hearth. A music studio is lined with 20 assorted guitars, two keyboards and sound equipment. The chapel is nearby, in need of a chaplain. Down the hallway, windows of the job readiness boutique showcase an impressive selection of shoes available as part of the complimentary workplace attire. The recreation center features a rock wall, weights and a full-size basketball court, home to pick-up games as well as events like the recent Halloween ball.
Rounding out the center are classrooms, a computer lab, an art studio offering classes with visiting artists, and offices of partner organizations that provide additional resources, such as substance abuse treatment or parenting classes. Covenant House Alaska also encompasses two satellite transitional living sites, the Rights of Passage home for those 18-21 and the Passage House for moms and their children.
“We’re going to give them all the things they need so that when they leave, they’re never going to be homeless again,” said Louwerse, now Youth Engagement Program coordinator.
Twenty years after Lachance walked through the doors, many “Covey kids” like her are thriving as homeowners, professionals and parents, working hard to give their own children a secure childhood. Nearly three-quarters of them remain employed after moving forward from Covenant House’s transitional living programs. But more youth than ever live homeless in Anchorage today.
“We need to get educated,” Louwerse said. “Like myself — five years ago before I stepped on the streets (as outreach case manager), I had no idea what was going on.”
Covenant House, an international ministry founded in 1972 by a Catholic priest in New York, embodies Christ’s teachings known as the Corporal Works of Mercy. In the Gospels, Christ calls the faithful to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked, among other works of mercy. Volunteers and donations are critical to this mission as two-thirds of Covenant House Alaska’s operating budget is covered by private donations.
For those who wish to contribute but can’t volunteer or donate, Lachance suggests they tour Covenant House Alaska to become aware of available resources and then refer at-risk, runaway and homeless youth. Another option for parishioners is to invite a Covenant House speaker to their church to raise awareness of human trafficking and homelessness and possibly raise funds. Staff also are eager to assist struggling parents or caregivers like Lachance’s aunt, who are trying their best to care for troubled children and desperate for help.
Though Lachance and her aunt reconciled and are close today, and Covenant House nurtured and guided her to a happy ending, she and Louwerse stress that the greatest success story is saving a young person from turning to the streets. Louwerse urges people to get involved by reaching out to at-risk youth and providing support and mentoring at the community level — before they are standing in the cold facing their first night in a homeless shelter downtown.
“We have a culture that is so quick to blame people for their hardships. It’s easy to look at someone who’s homeless on the street and believe that this is somehow his fault,” Louwerse said. “Until we can see the vulnerability of our youth and their humanity… until we know who they are and know their names and hear their stories, we will never know the truth, and they will continue to be marginalized.”