For most people, when asked about homelessness in Anchorage, the mind’s eye goes to the faces on the street, or people holding up cardboard signs on street corners. Every one of them has a story.

But about children in our schools? With the exception of their teachers and certain school staffers, they are almost an invisible population, perhaps overlooked because the district works hard to provide many services to help them blend into the schools, continue their education and avoid the stigma of homelessness.

Still, the numbers are worth noting. The Anchorage School District counts almost 2,200 in its “Student in Transition” program. Most of those families live in shelters, motels or they double-up in apartments.

A few months ago, when stories about spice-addicted street people dominated the headlines, we decided we wanted to know more about this other group of people who experience homelessness — to put a face on family homelessness.

We asked Salvation Army staffers to help us find a homeless student to profile and were intrigued by one of their suggestions — 14-year-old Tiawna Lecato, an honor student who was recently recognized by President Barack Obama for her volunteerism.

When I went to the McKinnell House, a local family shelter, to meet Tiawna and her family, I was stunned by some of the things the teen said. One of them: just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to give back, to excel in your school work.

We started meeting with Tiawna and her family regularly. Getting to know them was like peeling back the layers of an onion.

Tiawna told us their stay in the McKinnell shelter was not their first. We also learned the family had a long history of evictions, which made it difficult for them to qualify for low-income housing programs.

Tiawna’s mother, Charlotte, seemed like a dedicated parent — intent on getting Tiawna and her brother back and forth to school, while supporting their involvement in after-school programs — juggling all of this with her job as a cashier.

Tiawna’s father, Jerard, came across as very articulate and personable. He told us he was a disabled veteran and received checks from the military.

The picture was puzzling. Why was this family caught in the cycle of homelessness? And that’s what this week’s Frontiers unravels, as well as the remarkable story of Tiawna Lecato, who emerges from her family’s struggles, strong and successful.

The school district tells us there are many other students who succeed against the odds — a reminder of the importance of a community safety net for children, whether it’s through after-school programs, low income housing programs or shelters.

The budget of the McKinnell shelter is about $1 million a year. About 80 percent of the funds must be raised from the community.

Our guests this week are Capt. Diana Gomes, homeless services director at the Salvation Army Alaska, and David Mayo-Kiely, director of ASD’s Students in Transition program.

 

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