Supporting Homeless Youth in Anchorage, Alaska
In towns and cities nationwide, communities are seeking ways to curb homelessness and provide needed affordable housing to members of their community, particularly vulnerable populations such as unhoused youth. The COVID-19 pandemic further stressed communities, forcing homeless service organizations to meet unexpected new needs while also rethinking their existing activities. Although these additional needs presented challenges to these organizations, they also offered the opportunity to find new and creative approaches to serving their communities. Driven by the pandemic, Covenant House Alaska (CHA), a service provider for youth experiencing homelessness in Anchorage, Alaska, worked with its partners in 2021 to enact two projects that provide housing, community, education, and employment services to youth experiencing homelessness. After opening in the summer of 2022, Covey Lofts and Covey Academy are filling a key role in Anchorage and its surrounding communities.
Homelessness in Anchorage
According to the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness (ACEH), Anchorage’s Continuum of Care, 2,429 individuals in Anchorage were actively experiencing homelessness at the end of September 2022. (This number does not include individuals served by agencies that do not share data with the Alaska Homeless Management Information System.) Of these, 317 were unaccompanied youth (defined as individuals under age 25 who are not associated with a parent or guardian and are not parenting youth), and 524 were individuals experiencing homelessness in families (defined as individuals in households with at least one parent and at least one minor in a parent-child relationship). For the period from January 1 to August 31, 2022, 46 percent of individuals experiencing homelessness in Anchorage at any given time self-identified as American Indian, Alaska Native, or Indigenous. According to CHA staff, Anchorage’s coordinated entry system showed that ACEH served 1,559 youth aged 18 to 24 from January 1, 2021, to December 31, 2021, and the Anchorage School District’s Child in Transition program, which serves homeless children and youth, identified 572 homeless youth aged 13 and up in the 2021–2022 school year.
Anchorage is participating in the Built for Zero initiative, a movement that aims to “measurably and equitably end homelessness” in 105 U.S. communities. Central to this initiative is the use of data to move communities to a state of “functional zero,” in which homelessness is rare, brief, and nonrecurring. According to the nonprofit Community Solutions, 14 communities nationwide have achieved functional zero for at least one population. Homeless service organizations such as CHA are vital in the effort to reach functional zero homelessness in Anchorage.
Covenant House Alaska
Focusing on youth experiencing homelessness or human trafficking, CHA has supported more than 30,000 youth since it opened in 1988. Between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, CHA assisted a record 1,345 youth, 355 more than its previous high. CHA is affiliated with Covenant House International, a privately funded nonprofit with a footprint in 34 cities in the United States, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, and Canada.
Forty-one percent of CHA’s youth clients are of Alaska Native or Native American descent, followed by 19 percent who identify as white, 7 percent as black, 6 percent as Pacific Islander, 8 percent as multiracial or other, and 19 percent as unknown or not reporting. The significant percentage of Alaska Native and Native American youth that CHA serves requires the organization to be deliberate and thoughtful in its programming. To ensure that its programs are culturally appropriate, CHA partners with various Alaska Native organizations, including The CIRI Foundation and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council.
CHA offers local youth a diverse portfolio of services, including transitional housing, shelter services, street outreach, education and employment services, and youth enrichment. At its 40-bed Youth Engagement Center, service providers offer wraparound services to meet the diverse needs of the youth, including health care, cultural workshops, drug counseling, suicide prevention, and mental health services. In fiscal year 2021, the Youth Engagement Center served 221 youth for a total of 14,085 bed nights. During the same period, CHA provided emergency overnight shelter in its gym to 163 youth for a total of 1,286 winter nights. The center served 43,469 meals during the fiscal year, and 20 youth obtained a high school diploma or a GED through its high school and GED support services.
CHA is also part of HUD’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project. Anchorage was one of the first 10 communities in the country to pilot the program in 2018. Anchorage received $1.5 million for the program in 2018, and, as the lead agency, CHA received $1 million.
In the summer of 2021, CHA and its partners broke ground on the construction of Covey Lofts. Spurred by the housing crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, CHA opened Covey Lofts just 1 year later. This 4-story, 22-unit development is available to youth in the Covenant House network aged 18 to 25 who are experiencing homelessness and human trafficking.
Consisting of 22 studio units with private bathrooms, Covey Lofts is designed to look and feel like an apartment building. Each housing unit comes with a mini fridge, microwave, television, coffeepot, kettle, bedding, towels, plates, and bowls. Each unit has a desk and an office chair so that the resident has a space to complete homework, study, and apply for jobs. The units have roll-in showers and grip bars that comply with the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The building includes laundry facilities and a communal kitchen, and the common areas allow residents space to build their own community and support system.
To ensure that residents have the support they need to succeed, CHA pairs each resident with a navigator as soon as they move into Covey Lofts. The navigator supports residents as they settle into their new homes and begin accessing the development’s wraparound services, including health care, counseling, case management, education, and employment services.
Around the corner from Covey Lofts is Covey Academy, a vocational training center with 19 onsite housing units for students. Covey Academy is designed as a campus where students can live, learn, work, and be members of a community.
When designing programming for the Covey Academy training space, CHA staff asked themselves, “What does not exist in Anchorage? What are the community’s workforce needs?” From those discussions emerged the training opportunities that students now enjoy at the academy. One skill set that is particularly in demand in the Anchorage area is the culinary arts, and Covey Academy has a fully appointed commercial kitchen where students can master a range of culinary skills. Covey Academy also has a classroom that allows for in-person and remote learning, with a lactation tent in one corner of the classroom to make it easier for nursing mothers to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the academy.
One of the most interesting parts of Covey Academy is its simulator room, including a commercial driver’s license simulator, a heavy equipment machinery simulator, a flight simulator, and a boat simulator. Students can use these stimulators to earn the training hours needed to be a pilot, a bus driver, a boat captain, or a waste truck operator, among other occupations. Young people can also use a simulator to earn driving hours so that they can eventually get a driver’s license, a necessary component for many young people to achieve independence and self-sufficiency.
In addition to vocational training, Covey Academy prioritizes wellness. From healing circles to counseling groups, mental health and wellness figure prominently in students’ and residents’ lives. Wellness partners include Volunteers of America, the Southcentral Foundation, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center; these partners offer support including recovery services, mental health support, life skills training, and cultural engagement. Residents can also enjoy the Academy’s fitness center, ensuring that physical health is prioritized along with mental health.
While the first floor of Covey Academy has training and academic space, the second floor contains the 19 student housing units. Much like the Covey Loft housing units, the Covey Academy student housing units come appointed with the amenities to make students feel at home, including bedding, televisions, mini fridges, and microwaves.
Apparent upon entering both Covey Lofts and Covey Academy are the buildings’ inviting and comfortable design elements. CHA partners with a local company to fill the Loft and Academy spaces with live plants, which add a welcoming touch while supporting clean air throughout the buildings. Works from local artists — including stylized soup cans, elaborate scenes drawn with only a Sharpie marker, and colorful fish figures — adorn the walls. The art not only makes the spaces more inviting but also affords local artists the opportunity to showcase their work. From the comfortably appointed studios to the art and plants throughout the spaces, Covey Academy and Covey Lofts are thoughtfully designed to give residents pride in their home and dignity in their living situation.
Partnerships are key when addressing multifaceted challenges such as homelessness. For Covey Lofts and Covey Academy, CHA partnered with the Cook Inlet Housing Authority (CIHA), an anchor institution in the community. Chris Kolerok, CIHA’s director of public policy and government affairs, explained the partnership between CHA and CIHA as two organizations complementing each other’s strengths. “CIHA has expertise in building and in building a capital stack, and other organizations have expertise in running programs. We stick with what we do well, and we partner with organizations that work with our people. For the Covey developments, CIHA's role was to help find funding and manage construction, and Covenant House Alaska brought the nonprofit fundraising and program expertise. Everyone did what they do best, and the outcome is that we are able to support Alaska Native youth in partnership.” Additional partners are the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, and Nine Star Education and Employment.
Covenant House Alaska currently is working to fill the units in Covey Lofts and Covey Academy. The 41 new housing units available to young adults will fill an important void in the housing landscape in Anchorage, and the services available through the academy have the potential to provide many Alaskan youth with the skills needed to become self-sufficient and build a strong foundation for the years ahead.
For more information about CHA, see the May 2022 PD&R Quarterly Update, “The Intersectionality of Youth Homelessness,” featuring Alison Kear, chief executive officer of CHA, and Dash Togi, youth champion fellow at CHA.
Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. n.d. “Data.” Accessed 18 October 2022; Email correspondence with Covenant House Alaska staff, 24 October 2022. ×
Community Solutions. n.d. “Built for Zero.” Accessed 18 October 2022. ×
Covenant House. n.d. “Our Houses: Find a shelter near you.” Accessed 17 October 2022; Covenant House Alaska. 2021. “2021 Impact Report.” Accessed 19 August 2022; Email correspondence with Covenant House Alaska staff, 24 October 2022. ×
Covenant House Alaska. 2021. “2021 Impact Report.” Accessed 19 August 2022. ×
Covenant House Alaska. n.d. “How We Help,” Accessed 18 October 2022; Covenant House Alaska. n.d. “About Covenant House Alaska,” flyer; Covenant House Alaska. 2021. “2021 Impact Report.” Accessed 19 August 2022; Email correspondence with Covenant House Alaska staff, 24 October 2022. ×
HUD Exchange. n.d. “Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program,” Accessed 18 October 2022; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. n.d. “Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program,” Accessed 18 October 2022; Email correspondence with Covenant House Alaska staff, 24 October 2022. ×
Covenant House Alaska. n.d. “About Covenant House Alaska,” flyer; Katie Anastas. 2022. “Covenant House opens long-term housing, job training facilities for homeless youth,” Alaska Public Media, 27 June. Accessed 18 October 2022. ×
Email correspondence with Covenant House Alaska staff, 24 October 2022. ×
Email correspondence with Covenant House Alaska staff, 24 October 2022. ×
Interview and email correspondence with Chris Kolerok and CIHA staff, 24 October 2022; Email correspondence with Covenant House Alaska staff, 24 October 2022. ×