In smaller Alaska communities, residents are especially aware of the needs of their fellow neighbors. Everyone knows everyone, they see each other often, and word travels fast.
Take Valdez, for instance: Housing is limited, employment drops in the winter, and utility costs skyrocket when the snow falls and sunlight dwindles. These challenges make it difficult to survive in lean times. Fortunately, the Valdez Food Bank knows this and has become much more than just a place to pick up groceries.
In 2021, the Valdez Food Bank received $20,000 in community benefit funding from Providence Alaska to add the Rental Deposit Assistance Program to its list of services. Matt Wadsworth, director of Behavioral Health at Providence Valdez Counseling Center and Food Bank board member, said the board recognized the need to fill this gap in community services.
“These are good people who have just been through really tough things in their lives,” Wadsworth said.
In social work, the term “upstream” is often used to describe services to help struggling individuals achieve stability. At the core of that stability, Wadsworth stressed, is a place to call home.
“There is a homeless problem in Valdez, but it’s a couch-surf situation, and it can be unsafe,” he said. “Housing is tight and expensive. It’s not just the rent, but the deposit, too, and that can be difficult to come up with. It’s a painful [situation] to be at times.”
The funds Providence provided allow the Food Bank to give qualified applicants the deposit they need to sign a lease. The understanding is that when, or if, the individual moves on, their deposit will come back to the Food Bank, to pay it forward to the next neighbor in need.
“We are hoping it will somewhat sustain itself for a while” Wadsworth said.
Toni Emerald is the property manager of Soundview Apartments, one of the locations that accepts Food Bank deposits. While she has not been a recipient herself, she said she knows well how helpful it would have been for her family nearly four years ago.
“I was a stay-at-home mom at the time, my husband’s job was not going well, and we couldn’t afford our rent,” said Emerald, who has since found a place to live. “We were given notice that they were not renewing our lease. We had no money, no prospects, and no apartments were available.”
Emerald said her life has not been easy. She is a recovering addict and has been clean for 18 years; she has experienced physical and sexual abuse. And when she and her husband lost their apartment, they and their two grade-schoolers became homeless.
“It was really hard to explain to the kids that we were going to pack up our apartment and move,” she said. “When they wanted to know where, we had to say, ‘We don’t know yet.’”
Emerald said what followed was a nightmare of campouts that they disguised as vacation, sleeping on couches in church members’ homes, and simply driving around.
“One day my youngest was having a really hard day, and I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and he said, ‘I want to go home.’ It was the only time I lost it and cried in front of my kids. I said, ‘Honey, I don’t know where home is.’”
Emerald’s story has a happy ending. She said her husband finished a training school that led to a permanent job, and she ended up in a position that uniquely qualifies her to work with potential new renters.
“What I was going through in my personal life was job training for this,” she said. “I am able to show compassion and empathize when they are struggling to get in here.”
Community Liaison Michelle Chase is property manager and Housing Choice Voucher program specialist for public housing with Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. She said the Rental Deposit Assistance Program is especially helpful because it goes above and beyond other assistance programs available to those in need. The Food Bank’s Emergency Assistance Fund helps cover such things as utility costs, auto repairs and other unexpected and high-cost items that can stress those living on limited incomes.
“You can only use the emergency assistance a certain number of times over five years,” she said. “But the Rental Deposit Assistance Program does not count against emergency assistance.”
Chase said she expects the need for rental deposit assistance is only going to grow in the coming year.
“Rents are going up here quite drastically,” she said, noting that she had documented 23 rent increases over a three-day period in early March. “Because our housing situation is so terrible here, when people do have an opportunity, they have to jump on it. You don’t have to be a patron of the Food Bank; it’s really open to anybody who needs that extra help.”
Wadsworth lauded Providence’s willingness to trust that local organizations can best solve problems in their communities – no matter how large or small. Its $20,000 commitment goes a long way toward helping many Valdez neighbors find the permanence they need.
“I know all of these people, and they are good people who are just trying to get by and navigate as best as they can,” he said. “If it can be done, I believe it can be done in Valdez.”
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