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Madison was 21 when she first visited Covenant House Alaska’s youth shelter in downtown Anchorage. Already struggling with suicidal thoughts when she was kicked out of her home, Madison found a supportive team committed to helping her heal and succeed.
Chris Reppel, a mental health clinician with VOA Alaska’s Supportive Housing program, was one of those people.* Chris first began visiting Covenant House in 2019 as part of an ongoing partnership between VOA and the shelter. While much of his work involved substance use treatment, mental health therapy, and crisis stabilization, he helped youth find job training and employment and was just another friendly face.
“You know, it was having dinner in my office and just chatting,” Chris says about what it was like to build relationships the residents, “or me going out there and saying, ‘Hey, anyone wanna go play baseball?’”
For young adults like Madison, that friendly connection goes a long way. She taught the staff Skipbo and King’s Corner, games she learned from her grandmother back home. For her birthday, staff bought her a cake and treated her to lunch.
This is what Madison needed the most. “Being loved by them, having a funny conversation, just playing cards with them,” are some of her best memories while working with VOA and Covenant House.
Connecting Partners to Connect Services
Since 2014, VOA Alaska has partnered with Covenant House Alaska to provide behavioral health services for the young adults arriving at the shelter and help place them in housing options that best fit their needs. The partnership grew stronger in 2018 with funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which launched the Youth Homeless Demonstration Project with VOA Alaska, Covenant House, and Choosing Our Roots. This created a pathway to not only housing, but empowerment and self-sufficiency through the collaboration of multiple community partners.
“Many young people experiencing houselessness are impacted by substance misuse and/or mental health challenges,” says Heidi Huppert, Chief Program Officer at Covenant House. “Bringing the experts, like VOA, into our space was essential to provide them with the services and healing opportunities that they so desperately need.”
As Madison describes, it’s “not just housing, it is helping you search for your own house, your own job, whatever else you need.”
No single organization can meet all the needs of those they serve. VOA’s Supportive Housing team has services and support to offer but the team relies on Covenant House to connect and engage with young adults in need of those services. The staff of both organizations share resources and training, growing together to support the young people of our community. And all that collaboration leads to establishing even stronger relationships with the youth.
“Building trust while they are at the shelter is key for assisting them with their housing goals,” says Michael Farrell, Lead Case Manager for Supportive Housing. “The VOA staff at the shelter are the same ones that will be helping them move into their first apartment and continuing to support them for months or years afterwards.”
A Community of Support
Back in 2019, when Chris first began visiting Covenant House, the VOA Alaska Supportive Housing team was a staff of only three people. Today, a team of 14 are working together to provide behavioral health services, peer support, case management, and housing assistance.
They are advocates for youth during meetings with landlords, they help youth shop for groceries and furniture for their new apartments, and they are the person who’s there to help, whether it’s dealing with depression or applying for a job. Together with Covenant House and other local partners, the VOA team is a consistent and supportive presence during a time of intense transitions.
“This partnership, this mix of Youth Engagement Specialists, Navigators, Clinicians, and housing experts are a dream team of folks that leverage their expertise into actions and support that save lives and change young lives,” says Heidi. “The young person is wrapped in a team of folks that may not know or understand all of the job titles, but they understand that they are cared for, and they have someone to call when they need support.”
Before she arrived at the shelter, Madison had felt alone, unsure of what might be next for her—if there was a “next” at all. But between the teams at VOA Alaska and Covenant House, she felt safe and supported. “Without them all together,” she says, “I probably would not be alive today.”
*Chris Reppel is now VOA Alaska’s Assessment Clinician