By Jenny Neyman
It’s expensive to be poor.
When an individual or family is living life on the brink, it doesn’t take much to push them over. A broken-down car, a medical bill, a reduction in hours at work, heating and electric bills taking a jump as they did in January — any number of things can mean the difference between making ends meet and falling through the cracks.
“The job market has always been at best thin on the Kenai Peninsula. With the current economic concern people are being cut back on hours. Making minimum wage … it’s impossible. Absolutely impossible,” said Catherine DeLacee, project manager for Love In the Name of Christ. “They get into trouble so fast. With those wages, there’s no savings account. There just isn’t. It’s all consumed by feeding your family and rent.”
A bad situation can quickly spiral out of control. Getting behind on bills leads to a poor credit rating, which means higher interest rates, fees and not being approved for certain loans or programs. There’s no money to go to school or get training to increase job opportunities. And if someone can’t keep up on rent or utilities and gets evicted, they may not even have a phone number or address to list on job applications or public assistance forms.
“It just mushrooms out of sight,” said Ingrid Edgerly, Love INC’s executive director. “These are the people that fell through the cracks. These are people that can’t get help anywhere else and usually end up calling us after accessing all of the resources they know, or they don’t know what other resources are out there.”
That’s where Love INC comes in. The organization, established on the central peninsula in 1987, serves as a clearinghouse to help steer people in need toward available resources. They don’t duplicate services that already exist, Edgerly said, but they are connected with about 60 assistance agencies — such as the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, Frontier Community Services and the various state public assistance offices — as well as 52 churches that offer help and community outreach programs, like the Saint Vincent DePaul Society.
Through those partnerships, Love INC volunteers are able to connect people with all kinds of assistance, from furniture to help with applying for food stamps, and cords of wood to punch cards for Central Area Rural Transit System rides.
More than that, volunteers offer a lifeline in what can be a frightening and frustrating process of getting people back on their feet.
“Advocacy is our number one asset,” DeLacee said. “Many of these people by the time they arrive here have exhausted all other resources, or they’re truly not empowered to start the search. Life has kind of beaten them up. They don’t have computers, don’t have fax machines, they are not going to be able to see a newspaper — they are just so down and out they don’t know what to do.”
Love INC intends to be a resource people can call upon when they don’t know what else to do. But for some needs, even Love INC has nowhere to turn. The most glaring gap in service has been housing, especially for families, Edgerly said. The LeeShore Center in Kenai serves women in crisis, and the Friendship Mission north of Kenai houses men, but that leaves a substantial demographic of people out in the cold — perhaps even literally, this time of year.
Edgerly points to a July 2007 study from the University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research that found between 400 and 500 people were homeless annually on the peninsula, and the average age was 9 years old.
Some of these people couch surf or find friends or family willing to take them in for a while, but that’s not a solution. And not everyone has even those short-term options. Some folks, and families, end up living in cars or travel trailers, even in the winter, Edgerly said.
“People come to Alaska without family and friends to back them up, and because they’re from Outside they don’t have a clue that this borough has no social services and they have to go to the state, but there’s a waiting list because the state is inundated. So we just stepped into the gap. But we had to do it on faith because the need is much greater than it was,” DeLacee said.
For years now Love INC has been trying to set up some form of transitional housing, especially for families in need of a place to stay while they get back on their feet. At first the idea was to house people in a church at night, but volunteers were also needed to stay overnight and folks needed somewhere else to go during the day. That program didn’t take off.
Next the organization considered building a transitional living facility. A parcel of land from the city of Soldotna was considered along Kalifornsky Beach Road, but the funding sources Love INC was counting on required a 50-year lease on the land, which Love INC didn’t get.
This winter, Love INC is testing a program that may prove to be the solution. The organization worked out a lease for five rooms at a local hotel, for one-fifth the usual cost, and has been housing people there since December. As of this month, the Love INC Bridge Housing Program has sponsored 1,161 bed nights for 33 people since Dec. 3. The shortest stay was three nights, and one family of four has been housed through the program since it started.
Edgerly said she did not want to identify the hotel, because they are not equipped to deal with walk-ins seeking services. Anyone interested in Love INC’s housing or other programs should call its office at 283-5252.
Guests must go through Love INC’s intake process — including a criminal history check — and meet the program’s criteria. Love INC doesn’t discriminate, Edgerly said, but there aren’t enough resources to help everyone, so priority is given to families first.
The guests have all been approved for Alaska Housing Finance Corp. housing, but have a hard time getting approved for a lease because of credit problems or past financial history. Guests are approved to stay at the hotel for a week at a time, and as long as they abide by the program’s rules — no drugs or alcohol, and continue making progress toward finding work and a permanent place to live — their stay can be extended a week at a time.
While at the transitional housing, Love INC continues to help with other needs, like clothing, transportation, budget counseling or help with a job search. On Monday, the organization partnered with the Rural CAP program to offer a basic math class to any residents who were interested.
Edgerly said Love INC hopes to secure grant money to buy the hotel and expand the transitional housing program. Operating the program on a pilot, five-room basis, as it’s doing this winter, is a huge step in the right direction because it demonstrates that the program is being utilized, and it’s sustainable.
“The bridge housing, not only is it meeting a critical need right now, but it’s also building something for us to show the community and grantors that it’s needed and that we have the support in the community,” Edgerly said.
Love INC is experiencing growing pains these days, especially the pain in knowing there are more needs in the community than the organization is able to meet. Some people who contact the organization don’t qualify for assistance, or don’t cooperate with the requirements of the processing procedure. Others have immediate needs, but find that Love INC isn’t an emergency organization. It tries, but it takes time to get through paperwork and to steer people through the necessary channels, Edgerly said.
Complicating matters is the fact that the need for help is growing. The organization recently added two phone lines and a new voice mail system, and is bringing on two new positions, but it’s still not enough. Volunteers come in to find 16 to 25 messages waiting in the morning, which never used to happen, DeLacee said.
Housing needs are greater than Love INC can provide for, as well. The organization has gone up to as many as eight rooms in the Bridge Housing Program since December, but even with the room rate discount, the program is funded through donations. Businesses, churches and organizations have been “astounding” in their support, Edgerly said, but everyone’s feeling the pinch of economic woes this winter.
Love INC also is trying to combat the problem before it starts, by distributing homeless prevention grant money from AHFC. The money goes to keep people in financial crises on the peninsula from being evicted, but at the rate the program’s going, the nearly $50,000 grant will be used up before its June 30 expiration date. In October 2008 Love INC used $2,000 of the grant, and that’s escalated each month to nearly $9,000 in February.
Edgerly said Love INC is focusing more on getting the word out about its services and, especially, its need for donations, volunteers and community support.
“We’re really diligently trying to get word out to the community, not only the problem, but also the need for support to back us and stand behind this. Just because people don’t stand on the street corner getting publicity doesn’t mean there’s not a need,” she said.
“I just really believe that Alaskans are generous, good people. The problem is if they know,” DeLacee added.
To that end, Love INC is holding its annual fundraiser dinner and silent auction at 6:30 p.m. Friday at the Soldotna Bible Chapel. Admission is free, and donations toward Love INC’s programs, especially its transitional housing, are gladly accepted. Call the office for reservations at 283-5252.
“We’re not a Band-Aid approach,” DeLacee said. “We’re really here to help people change their lives.”