In recognition of Suicide Prevention Month this September, the National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families recently spoke with the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) grantee MY House, located in Wasilla, Alaska, about suicide prevention and other topics. Founded in 2012, MY House serves the Mat-Su Valley region, an area near in size to West Virginia and roughly 35 miles north of Anchorage. The "MY" in "MY House" is an acronym for Mat-Su Youth. MY House supports youth experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless and includes a drop-in center, transitional housing units, and a café and boutique where many clients gain work experience. FYSB funds MY House's Street Outreach Program (SOP), which reaches out throughout the Mat-Su Valley.
MY House services Alaska Native, white, Hispanic, and Black youth, some of whom identify as LGBTQ. Each year, MY House adds about 100 to 110 new clients, serving approximately 100 current clients at their drop-in center each week.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020, Alaska had the second highest suicide rate in the nation. Justin Pendergrass, the Suicide Prevention Specialist and a case manager at MY House, says there are many reasons for this, including Alaska's "nine months of darkness," when there is only a short period of daylight. During the winter, he says, "our youth arrive at school at 7:30 in the morning, when the sun hasn't come up yet, and they're going home at 4:00 p.m., when the sun is already down. The lack of Vitamin D, the lack of that sunlight, can contribute to feelings of loneliness and hopelessness." He also says that Alaskans often remain home rather than going out during the winter, and in remote parts of the state, they may have less access to support or resources.
During its client intake, MY House includes screening questions related to a variety of issues, including thought of suicide and human trafficking. One of its six housing units is dedicated to victims of human trafficking, and it also has a human-trafficking expert on staff. In addition, Pendergrass responds to suicide-related crisis calls. He has found that someone he talks with on a suicide call may be "crying out for help, but they're not crying out to be taken to a hospital." He further explains that he “sits, sometimes for hours,” with those he has worked with who struggled with suicidal thoughts. “Those young people may just need to be heard for a moment,” he says, “because they've never been heard."
Jay Dagenhart, the Outreach Coordinator at MY House, describes their approach to suicide prevention as a “three-legged stool.” It relies on three tactics. The first is providing a safe place for youth to stay. The second is responding to substance abuse issues if they are present. The third is helping with the youth’s sense of self-worth, communication skills, and feelings that somebody cares about them. “We use all of those legs,” says Dagenhart, “because if you just put somebody in a place to stay, you do not really solve the problem."
MY House serves a large geographical area, and its SOP uses diverse strategies. Information about MY House is shared through posters, brochures, social media (such as Facebook and Instagram), and school presentations. Isaac Smoldon, the MY House Production Manager, also produces four different MY House podcasts.MY House encourages homeless or at-risk youth from throughout the Mat-Su Valley to come to its drop-in center and facilitates transportation for those who need it. There, case managers work with youth while client navigators help take clients to appointments, prepare for job interviews, or explore housing options.
During the summer, Dagenhart also conducts outreach to homeless youth living in the Alaskan woods. Unlike in the winter, during the summer months, youth feel "it's easier to camp outdoors than it is to couch surf," says Dagenhart. MY House works with local law enforcement to check on whether youth are camping in a safe place or if minor homeless youth are camping with older adults whom they do not know.
MY House emphasizes a "hand up, not a handout" philosophy, meaning that clients develop their own plans and work toward those goals. Pendergrass describes a former client with a love of music who received housing, education, clothing, food, and wrap-around services during an 18-month period with MY House, helping him to complete high school. Now this former client has a full scholarship for singing at the University of Alaska.
Dagenhart describes another client who came to MY House through the SOP. She had been "homeless, running the streets with gangs in Anchorage," he says. "During our intake process, we ask ‘what would you do if you could do anything in the world?’ She responded, 'I like to play basketball and I'm pretty good at it.'" MY House helped her to enroll in a school with a basketball program. Ultimately, Dagenhart says, "She led her high school team to state finals and led the state in scoring, and USA Today did a whole piece on her." The former client received a basketball scholarship from Central Methodist University in Missouri, played professional basketball in Germany, and during the pandemic, returned to Alaska, where she initially worked for MY House and is now working for another nonprofit. Another former client manages the MY House women’s transitional housing unit. She recently shared her story with the governor's Foster Care Advisory Board, receiving a standing ovation.
Some MY House staff members have had difficult life experiences, including trauma, that help them to relate to clients facing similar challenges. Pendergrass, who experienced severe childhood trauma, says he struggled with suicidal thoughts in the past. He uses this experience in responding to incoming suicide calls.
Kurt Hoenack, a client navigator at MY House and youth mental health advocate who is certified for peer support, says, "I spent 16 years going through outpatient psychiatry." That experience "was part of my inspiration to join the Mental Health Board for the state of Alaska," he says. Hoenack has firsthand knowledge of the challenges involved with seeking information about mental health services. "It's hard for people to deal with that sometimes. Helping clients navigate mental health services and find out the best next steps is part of what I do," he says. "Sometimes I take people to the hospital or to the doctor just for a checkup, and then, with my lived experience, I get to say, from my perspective, this is what works for me."
MY House relies on numerous partners, from local police departments, Alaska state troopers, and schools, to the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, the Knik Tribal Council, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), and Alaska's Division of Public Health, as well as North Star Behavioral Health System, Set Free Alaska, and other organizations that provide mental health, behavioral health, and substance abuse treatment. Other partners include churches, libraries, the Lions and Rotary Clubs, the MatSu Food Bank, and the Settlers Bay Golf Course, which holds a tournament and fundraiser for MY House. Two employment and training partners are Nine Star Education & Employment Services, an on-site partner that focuses on vocational training and education, and Northern Industrial Training (NIT), whose staff works with youth seeking to acquire construction training or earn welding certificates or CDLs.
For MY House, partnering also includes participating in the Alaska governor's advisory boards. MY House staff members serve on nine boards, including the Alaska Mental Health Board, the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, the Advisory Board for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, and the Governor's Council on Human and Sex Trafficking. These affiliations help MY House learn about and contribute to new initiatives.
MY House's work became far more challenging when COVID-19 struck in early 2020, but they never had to cease operations. Dagenhart recalls, "We weren't going to be any good if we shut our doors." As in the years before the pandemic, MY House added 100 new clients that year. They continued to work with partners to train students in job skills, and 100 percent of the youth trained that year were employable.
COVID-19 had an impact on youth being able to access services more freely. "The isolation was hard on a lot of our clients," says Dagenhart, "because they are used to coming and going to our drop-in center." Although the café could not provide the opportunity to eat on-site in 2020, it handed out more than a thousand food packs and supper club meals through a drive-through or walk-up window. Suicide prevention was also an important part of the agency's work. “In that year,” Pendergrass says, "I went on over 160 suicide calls, and I lost zero individuals." Even given the successful efforts during the pandemic, Pendergrass says, “I don't know that we've seen the full ripple effect, at least for suicide, from the increased isolation that took place over the last two years. I believe that we may be seeing this effect for the next five years.” In response, MY House is increasing its presence in the community and making awareness of suicide prevention a top priority.
When asked for advice for other organizations that work with homeless and at-risk youth on how to deal with suicide prevention, Pendergrass says that it's usually best to "take a moment and not over-react when someone tells you that they're suicidal. More often than not, the youth won't be doing that [attempting suicide], rather they're sharing with you because they need someone to share with." Of course, suicide prevention work requires specialized skills. For a staff person who is not trained in suicide prevention dealing with a youth who is suicidal, Smoldon suggests that the youth be referred to someone who is appropriately trained. More broadly, in dealing with suicide prevention, Pendergrass says, remember that "prevention means people. People provide opportunities to connect—and I believe the opposite of suicide is connection."
Need Support Now?
If you or someone you care about is in crisis, there are several options available to help cope with the situation. You can call 988 or 1-800-273-8255, text 988, or chat 988 (at https://988lifeline.org/chat), and you will be connected to trained counselors at the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.