By Carey Restino
Homeless youth in Homer don’t panhandle on the street corner and are rarely seen camping out on park benches. They’re found couch-surfing with friends, or maybe living in a car or tent in the summer. But just because you don’t see them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
That’s what Janet O’Rourke found out, after a chance encounter with a teen looking for work shoveling snow caused her to see the problem for the first time. As a mother of a teen, O’Rourke was saddened to find out that more than 40 youth were homeless on the Southern Peninsula – and those were just the ones still going to school. Others, like the boy shoveling snow in a pair of shorts, had dropped out.
While the school district and other social agencies in Homer do what they can for these youth when they come into contact with them, the nearest shelter is hundreds of miles away. And while resources exist, they are far from comprehensive.
From that need, the effort to raise awareness about homelessness on the Southern Peninsula was born last year and continues this year with a rally and drive to fill stockings for homeless youth in the area.
A Dec. 8 rally at WKFL Park on Pioneer Avenue will run from noon to 2 p.m., and include food and lots of visuals to raise awareness about the homeless youth.
In addition, boxes will be put up at various locations around town, including GCI, the Ninilchik Tribal Council, Stay Tan, the Donut Shop and Kid’s Consignment Store, to collect items for the youth. Socks, gloves, mittens, hats and trial-sized hygiene products are needed. Gift cards to Safeway give youth the option of purchasing items they might need.
Boxes will be up until mid-December, when hand-made stockings will be filled and distributed to youth in the area who are known by the school district to be homeless. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District protects the identity of these youth, but provides the organizers with basic information like the age, size and gender of the children.
“We just want people to be aware and stand up for these kids,” O’Rourke said.
From her volunteer efforts, O’Rourke said the community needs more than just a stocking drive; it needs a shelter where youth can stay.
O’Rourke also said that, in her experience, some of the stigmas surrounding homeless teens are completely wrong. The youth she has taken into her home have proven to be hard-working, dedicated students, striving to become productive members of the community.
The Internet is one tool O’Rourke said she is finding useful to reach teens and connect them with resources like clothing, food and even jobs. A Facebook page called “TUFFTEENS was created to get the word out about available community resources. Those involved say the next step is establishing a shelter where youth can find a safe, warm place to stay. The group is researching how other communities have accomplished that goal.
Anyone interested in helping can call O’Rourke at 299-7578 or visit the TUFFTEENS site to volunteer, donate or otherwise participate in the effort.
“This is a huge community effort full of heart and love for our homeless youth,” O’Rourke wrote on the site.
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