WASILLA, Alaska — In the fastest growing community in Alaska, there is a growing awareness of a somewhat hidden problem. The Mat-Su Valley School District has identified nearly 800 youth that are homeless -- almost 200 of whom are "unaccompanied," with no parent or guardian in the picture.
Lela Fuerstenau, 19, is a senior at Burchell High School in Wasilla. She says she was homeless off and on for years and would usually stay at friends' houses for short periods of time.
"I never liked to overstay a welcome. I know no one would ever tell me to leave but you could always sense when people got tired of you being there so it would probably be like a month or two at each place," she said.
Now, Fuerstenau is living at a cabin on her sister's property. She says there are challenges, especially because she is also a young mother. As a Burchell student, Fuerstenau is able to bring her 11 month-old daughter Karae with her to school and drop her off at the daycare on site. Burchell is an alternative school that serves about 230 at-risk youth, according to principal Adam Mokelke. About half of the students are homeless. He says factors like substance abuse or an unstable family life, can leave a teen without a permanent home.
"What I find more often than not is the stigma is on the kids. Yet, when I get to know our kids and get to know their struggle and their issues, most often its factors outside their control," said Mokelke.
Mokelke says Burchell is a school first and focuses on helping students succeed and graduate. In the Valley, help for homeless youth is limited. There is no homeless shelter and few resources. My House, a new non-profit is trying to change that and hopes to open an outreach center this fall. Its president, Michelle Overstreet, says the youth that are the most at-risk are going to be the hardest to reach.
"If they're accustomed to sleeping in cars or accustomed to hanging out at Carrs or coffee shops, that's their place. Our hope is that we can create a place like that where they can come and get resources that can help them get on their feet," said Overstreet.