SEWARD, Alaska — Clara Brown was a single mom living in Seward when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Already struggling to make ends meet, she now was falling behind on rent. Afraid she would be evicted; Brown didn’t know where to turn.
Fortunately, Seward is a small town where neighbors help neighbors. Rather than evict Brown, her landlord told her about the Seward Homeless Connection, an organization under the umbrella of the Seward Prevention Coalition.
The program is funded in part with Providence Community Benefit funds. The money Providence Alaska donates helps provide rent and utility assistance to those needing help in lean times. It also provides vouchers for showers, supplies and equipment needed to work, and assists Seward residents in accessing and securing public assistance.
“The greater vision of the Seward Prevention Coalition is to reduce the impacts of adverse childhood experiences while increasing personal resiliency,” said Christiana Smith, president of the Seward Homeless Connection. “The Homeless Connection is an extension of that.”
Frances Azzad-Smith is outreach and enrollment coordinator at the Seward Community Health Center and is vice president of the Seward Homeless Connection. Because she works with clients daily to help connect them to financial aid and other services, she saw firsthand the need for a program to help people during difficult times.
Christiana Smith, as a former administrator at a childcare center, also saw the need among families. So, the two Smiths and a host of other board members and volunteers supported the creation of the Seward Homeless Connection. Operational for just over five years, the program helps roughly five-to-six individuals or households each month.
“Our focus is transitioning families and individuals into stability,” Smith said. “We want to assist people to get better situated and become stable members of the community.”
Most often, she said, community members call a referral line for help, just like Clara Brown did. Board members have the discretion to allow for immediate assistance if the situation is dire and the costs fall below a certain threshold. Most often, these include requests for help with heating bills or a deposit to secure an apartment.
“We are a tourist-oriented community and low-income apartments are limited here,” Azzad-Smith said. “And we don’t have a shelter in Seward. That is the biggest barrier here because people often have nowhere to go.”
Brown said the Seward Homeless Connection has come through for her on several occasions over the last three years.
“I remember I called to see if I could get some help with my deposit and electricity, and you said you would let me know,” Brown said, sitting in a conference room with Azzad-Smith and Smith, recalling those challenging days. “As a single mother, I was worried, ‘Will I be able to stay in my place?’ And it surprised me because later that same day you called me back and said, ‘Yes.’”
Meanwhile, Azzad-Smith met with Brown to help her apply for and receive public assistance, including food stamps so she could provide food for her and her son. The boost she received back then helped her focus on finishing her associate degree in business office technology and securing stable employment, both of which she has accomplished.
“It really helped me get back on my feet,” said Brown, who grew up on the Yukon River and spent time in Anchorage before coming to Seward four years ago. She said her life has not been easy, but with the help of the Seward Homeless Connection, she feels loved and supported here.
“This is where I’d say my healing has happened,” Brown said. “We have a roof over our heads, gas in my car, and food in our fridge.”
Christiana Smith leans in and puts her hand on Brown’s shoulder.
“Being a bridge for situations like this is what we want for our community,” Smith said. “That stability is what we all want.”
Brown offers a beaming smile and puts her arms around both women.
“I’m a survivor,” she said, “and I have no shame in asking for help. Moving here helped us break a cycle of violence. In our home, it is quiet and peaceful now. Seward is a place where I got myself back.”
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