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National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

Get to Know a Grantee: Fairbanks Native Association

Kids in a group

Get to Know a Grantee: Fairbanks Native Association

Fairbanks Native Association (FNA), founded in 1967, is among the oldest of Alaska’s Native organizations in the state. FNA provides an Alaska Native voice on public policy and a wide range of outreach, events, and programs, most of which serve all Fairbanks residents. Its programs offer support for finding jobs, receiving an education, celebrating culture, and youth and elder advocacy and care.

The FNA's Street Outreach and Advocacy Program, (SOAP), serves approximately 200 youth per year who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Among its other services, SOAP operates a drop-in center that provides food boxes, clothing, laundry facilities, mental health therapy, supplies for young children, and social events.

After receiving a Basic Center Program (BCP) grant from the Family and Youth Services Bureau Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Program in 2020, FNA opened a 10-bed SOAP BCP in August 2021. There is also a drug and alcohol program for all ages and Graf Rheeneerhaanjii (The Healing Place), which is a residential youth drug and substance abuse rehabilitation program for Alaska Native youth designed to provide in-state treatment.

The National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families spoke to SOAP Director Rebecca Buckles and SOAP BCP Manager Gail Joubert to learn more about their work and the value of incorporating the Alaska Native community and culture in FNA programs.

In general, SOAP aims to help all youth become self-sufficient, have a home they can maintain, and improve their mental health. The program supports each person’s individual goals, such as staying in school, reuniting with family, or finding a job. The SOAP drop-in center offers cooking classes, group therapies, and parenting classes for moms and is largely about letting youth know that somebody cares. For the SOAP BCP, goals include safe and stable housing and reinforced connections to long-term relationships. There is also a focus on education and job readiness, which includes exploring types of jobs and careers, obtaining personal identification, filling out applications, and practicing interviews.

FNA was created in the 1960s by a group of Alaska Native people in response to discrimination faced by Alaskan Natives. Over the years FNA has changed public policies that were discriminatory to Native people and developed programs that have helped countless people find new jobs, maintain sobriety, celebrate their culture, and receive an education. Joubert says the community takes pride in the agency given its history and mission. Youth find FNA more appealing because it’s an Alaska Native organization. Therapy is available through SOAP, and Alaska Native therapists and counselors are also available for youth who are seeking that connection. Elders work with youth on beading, fur work, jewelry making, moose tanning, and potlucks. Joubert says the FNA's organizational culture also reflects Alaska Native cultural values, noting, “In interviews, we take time, we listen, we pause between questions. We have an opening prayer in our staff meeting. It's accepted that people are taking time off to go moose hunting right now.”

The FNA's Graf Rheeneerhaanjii program for Alaska Native youth was created in 1985 to align with Native culture. The idea is that when youth are disconnected from their elders, they are disconnected from the spirit of the Earth and all the teachings that are passed down, and that creates a void within them. Through the program, youth can reconnect with whichever tribe they are connected to, learn the history, and work on filling that void with their culture, rather than coping through chemical dependency or alcohol.

According to Buckles, some of the biggest challenges for Alaska Native youth right now are poverty, COVID-19, a lack of affordable housing, drugs and alcohol, and mental illness. Winter can be especially hard, with snow usually starting around Halloween, just as daylight hours become increasingly shorter; youth go to school and return home in darkness. The combination of existing challenges and issues related to the lack of light, including safety during long dark nights, can present real mental health and physical dangers.

For non-Native organizations working with Native youth, Buckles expresses the need for culturally competent services noting that it is not always about Western culture and timelines. For example, when the fish are running, Alaska Native youth may participate in fish camps; their time may also include moose or caribou hunts, whaling, and berry-picking season. There are also social differences between working with Native and non-Native youth. For example, during therapy sessions Native youth might sit and not say anything; however, they’re still listening. They also may not have direct eye contact during these sessions.

It’s a testament to the youth feeling supported and encouraged in the community that many who identify as LGBTQ are coming out at younger ages. “There is still a trauma of coming out, but we do have non-binary, transgender youth, that are coming out at younger ages. We have a lot of kids that identify as queer or bi. There’s a lot of trauma around kids who are homeless and engaged in survival sex or sex work and who are really confused about their sexuality,” says Joubert.

Buckles says the most common call she gets from a parent with an LGBTQ youth is, "Can you give them some medication, they told me they were gay." She is educating the parents that such is not the case. SOAP is a safe, supportive place for LGBTQ youth, and that's what Buckles and Joubert want them to understand. “We believe in you," Buckles says she tells youth. "It's safe, and we are going to do everything we can to help you, but you have to help yourself, too.”

Buckles feels FNA’s biggest recent accomplishment is opening the SOAP BCP, which is an overnight space. She’s grateful that Perry Ahsogeak (director of FNA Behavioral Health Services) believed in the need. FNA can now offer a bed to a youth who has run away. Buckles says, “A young woman came in, she was on the street, and I showed her a room. I said, ‘Winter's coming, you can stay here.’”

Joubert says that, having grown up in the community when there were no resources for homeless youth, she watched a lot of youth get assaulted and some were killed. To come back home and for FNA to be able to provide 10 more beds to youth and more options is a huge accomplishment. “It would have been amazing to have something like this when I was here and my friends were out in the street,” she says.

To learn more about FNA, SOAP, and the SOAP Basic Center Program, please visit these links:

Fairbanks Native Association (website)

Fairbanks Native Association (Facebook page)

SOAP FNA (Facebook page)

"A Safe Place for Homeless Youth" (article on SOAP in FNA Highlights)