Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 3:41 PM on Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Homer-area residents hit by hard times

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

If you think this winter has been a hard one, consider how hard it would be without food for the table, fuel for the stove or a roof over your head. That's where a larger-than-ever number of Homer residents are finding themselves, according to local agencies whose mission is to extend a helping hand in hard times.

"There has been a 20 percent increase based on previous years," said Luke Gamble of Kenai Peninsula Housing Initiatives, referring to the number of families and individuals coming to KPHI for assistance.

Since 2007, KPHI has administered a Homeless Prevention Program on the southern peninsula. It offers rent and utility assistance, as well as support to prevent homelessness and maintain employment.

Lt. Michelle Josephson of the Salvation Army reports an increasing number of people from Happy Valley south who are turning to the Salvation Army's commodities program for food.

"We have seen a lot more folks come in. Folks that haven't been in in a number of years are having to come back and get some help," said Josephson.

The Salvation Army also provides assistance with heat, rent and utilities "as we have funds available."

The Kenai Peninsula Borough's personal use firewood program has proven an indicator of the toll heavy snowfall and cold temperatures have had on residents depending on wood for heat. Earlier this winter, the borough made 150 cords of wood available in the East End Road area.

"It was just to get people through until a new site opens with 700 cords in April," said Tammaron Baxter of the borough's Homer annex. "From the information I received, in five hours the wood piles were gone."

In existence for 20 years, the Homer Community Food Pantry faces a dramatic increase of individuals needing food, as well as help with utilities, rent and shelter.

"I've never seen this many homeless people," said Diana Jeska, food pantry executive director. "We are so swamped."

Those at the pantry's door include people with no place to stay, singles, middle aged individuals, former Homer residents returning to find themselves without income or housing, people without family for support, multiple families living under one roof.

"That's an indicator that there is a big population in need," said Jeska.

She attributes "the times" as the cause: a combination of a struggling economy and a cold winter.

"If I look at last year, in January I count 12 people we helped. In February, we helped 15," said Jeska. "This year there were 36 in January and 20 in February."

A Community Chest created in 2011 by an anonymous donation to the Homer Foundation also is helping meet the increased need. Working through established organizations, it provides aid for families and individuals in emergency situations, said Joy Steward, the foundation's executive director.

"We work through partners and in this first go-around, since we already had a relationship with the food pantry, that's our partner," said Steward.

The foundation receives monthly reports from the food pantry indicating the number of people helped and how they were assisted.

"One key thing this winter has been heating issues, utilities or firewood," said Steward. "People thought they could get along living in campers and it just got too cold and they had no where to go. It's been a real eye-opener for me."

Steward pointed to "extreme winter along with a tanking economy" as the underlying cause, as well as a lifestyle favored by many who move to Homer.

"Many of us choose to live very simply, but then you're just one little accident or misstep away from not being able to do it. You take an illness or something like that and you've got no cushion," she said.

Share the Spirit is another agency helping meet the needs of area residents. It began 20 years ago with a Christmas focus, distributing 47 baskets that first year. In 2011, the number rose to 224 baskets. For the past 18 years, it has offered assistance throughout the year.

Currently unemployed, the program's former president Shari Daugherty has begun volunteering with the food pantry, resulting in increased networking between the two programs and increased insights for Daugherty.

"All of a sudden it dawned on me at the end of February that we, Share the Spirit, not counting what the Food Pantry and KPHI and every organization in town was doing, we had spent in the first two months of this year more than we spent all of last year," said Daugherty.

In 2011, Share the Spirit spent $10,500 to assist 44 households. In January and February of this year, the same amount was spent assisting 26 households.

"I can look at the numbers and tell you last year was worse than it had been previously and this year has the potential to be a disaster," said Daugherty.

She predicts the area's heavy winter means a longer time before people get back on their feet.

"I stand in my yard and there's seven and a half feet of snow piled up around me and I think, OK, this situation we're in is not going away in 30 days," said Daugherty. "We're in for another 60-90 days of it being pretty rough. It's not just keeping you and your family warm, but if you're a seasonal worker, things start slow."

The generosity of southern peninsula residents is where Daugherty sees hope.

"I know we're all busy, shoveling to try to keep our heads above the snow and it's been a cold winter and heating prices are up. We all have those issues, but a bunch of us have the ability to live pretty comfortably whether we have jobs or not," she said. "I just want everybody to remember that your neighbors aren't doing that well and try to make some donations."

It might be cans of food taken to the food pantry. It might be a $10 check dropped in the mail to Share the Sprit. Every little bit helps, according to Daugherty.

"All the good people on the lower peninsula that are involved locally, I know they can understand what I'm saying and there'll be a few that say, 'You know what, I'm not going to buy that new pair of shoes this month. I'm going to take $20 and give it to the food pantry instead.' And we'll appreciate it," she said. "Those of us on the front lines appreciate it."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.