(Photo by Anne Brice/KCAW)

Taking care of the homeless is an ongoing problem in Alaska and elsewhere, and unfortunately, it’s not limited to adults. There is also a large, and less visible, population of homeless kids. By day, they might be in school, indistinguishable from other students. But by night, they’re short-term crashers, or couch surfers. These kids may be avoiding an unsafe situation at home, or they’re over 18 — between childhood and adulthood — and simply have no options.

KCAW visits with a family in Sitka who participates in a host home program — the only one in Alaska, and one of very few in the nation. They take in kids from ages 16 through 21 who have no place to go and give them a home.

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There’s this family in Sitka that has homeless teenagers living in their house. It might make some people nervous — it’s not easy to raise a teenager or being one for that matter — especially when dealing with all the problems that come with being homeless. The family, a longtime married couple, looks past what the kids might seem like on the outside and look inside for who they really are.

“We’ve had children in our home that people are just dumbfounded that we let them into our home,” the host dad says. “Their jaw drops. My response is, I don’t know this person you’re talking about. Kids make mistakes. If they make mistakes in a different environment, that’s a different deal.”

The couple is part of a program run by the nonprofit Youth Advocates of Sitka, or YAS. It places homeless youth with families in the community. We’ve been asked to keep the resource parents’ names confidential to protect the identities of the homeless teens they’ve hosted.

The resource dad says most of the people they invite into their home have really become part of the family.

“I call them all my children,” he said. “Long after they’re gone, many of them have grown up, and have bought their own homes and their own cars, have their own families, and have moved to different parts of the United States. For us it’s about family. We wanted to have a large family and sometimes things don’t turn out the way you think, but it’s been a blessing for us because now we can still have a large family.”

Clients can be 16 through 21 years old and are able to stay in a home for up to 18 months. The program is funded by a federal grant and is the only one of its kind in Alaska.

The couple has hosted more than a dozen youth over the five-year life of the program. They also take younger foster care kids. Since they always wanted a big family, they’re committed to having the same dynamic in their house.

“I have five sisters and three brothers,” he said. “She’s the oldest of 7. So we’re very comfortable with large families. We know what it’s like to share food and do dishes and have to think of others…we encourage family dinners. Every night. That’s really important. We both come from families where everybody, no matter what your schedule was, you had to be home at a certain time.”

Cultivating healthy relationships can be really hard, especially if trust has been broken in the past like it has been for many of these youth. And the host mom believes that to have a healthy relationship, love isn’t necessarily required.

“A big thing is communication and trust,” said the host mom. “Trust is a huge thing. A lot of times, we’ve had conversations with our kids or with each other about what matters most, love or trust? You know, you don’t need to have both to have a healthy relationship. But having trust is so much bigger.”

Love is unconditional; trust is not. They say that to cultivate and keep trust, you have to avoid so-called “deal breakers.”

“If you violate emotional, physical, spiritual…those kinds of things are deal breakers.” It usually comes down to physical abuse or emotional abuse.”

Other deal breakers are using alcohol, pot and other substances that might play a large role in some of the lives of these kids. This is a clean home – they don’t even drink a glass of wine at dinner.

“So, they’re able to see that kind of a lifestyle,” she said. “It’s a little different for them to experience that, and to learn how that kind of lifestyle is and to know that it isn’t accepted into their home.”

“What we don’t want to create is an environment where they have to be dishonest with us,”‘ said the host dad. “So, we really try to foster dialogue and an environment where they’re going to feel safe to talk with us. Some can’t handle it. Their substances are very important to them, so have to leave the house.”

And the program has some deal breakers, too. In order for the youth to qualify for the program, they have to be willing to set some goals of their own and work toward becoming independent.

Jessica Clark is the family resource center program manager of YAS. She meets with clients to make an individual plan. She says just setting goals helps a lot of people get on their feet.

“We’ve heard people say, I would like to be a rockstar,” said Clark. “When you’re working with youth, it’s really easy to be like, come on now, you’re homeless and you wanna be a rockstar. Let’s talk about reality. The reality is, if you start listing what you need to have in line and do to be a rockstar, you’ll find out that it’s a lot of the same job skills that you might need, minus maybe the music part.”

Just as each person’s life plan is individualized, so is the home placement. All different types of families take part in the program, and a lot of care is put into matching up the family and youth in a situation that they all feel good in.

“We always keep in touch with them,” said the host dad. “They call us up, they still come over. Even years later, the kids do. To say hello, wish us happy birthday. It’s like having older kids when you’re…I feel like an old man, because I’m going to my kid’s house…”

Youth Advocates of Sitka was recognized by the National Alliance to End Homelessness in its Housing and Outreach Strategies for Rural Youth, Best Practices from the Rural Youth Survey.  YAS is one of 91 organizations across 42 states that provides services to homeless youth, and has been asked to present at a national conference in Washington, DC about its host home program.