A Hand Up at Helping Alaska

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Less than a year ago, Michael was struggling with addiction and living unhoused during the Fairbanks winter.

Recalling that time of his life he said, “At that point I had no car, I had nothing. I was worried about where I was going to get my next meal…whether or not I was going to have to walk all night because it was too cold to sleep. It was tough, but it was a very clear mental choice to keep moving forward.”

Making Changes

Michael started making small changes to improve his physical, mental and financial stability and worked to find safe housing.

“Addiction is ugly and really breaks you down as a person,” he said. “When you are off of drugs you have to learn how to be human all over again. At that point you need somebody to basically hold your hand and help you a little bit.”

Finding a Hand Up

For Michael, Helping Alaska provided that hand up.

As one of AHFC’s non-profit partners, Helping Alaska distributes Alaska Housing Rent Relief funds and assists clients through the Housing Stabilization and Recovery program.

Housing Stabilization and Recovery program funds allow navigators at the non-profit to move individuals experiencing homelessness into safe temporary housing such as hotels. They then assist program participants with finding a suitable rental unit and use Rent Relief funds to pay the tenant’s rent for up to a year.

Falling Down, Getting Back Up

Stabilization Grant Director Marni Retynski remembers her introduction to Michael.

“Michael is a client who got exited from the [Stabilization] program three times and he had to go through a number of different navigators,” she said. “After he went through all of the navigators that we had available, then it was all on me. I was okay with that because Michael is such a unique individual. He is so friendly and he just had a jaded history – he wanted to do better.

Michael’s challenges didn’t stop when he entered the Stabilization program. At first, “He failed. He fell down, we helped him back up. He fell down again, we helped him back up,” Retynski said. “The last time it stuck and I found him housing.”

While the landlord was hesitant at first about accepting Michael as a tenant, Retynski continued to go to bat for him. Since then, she reports that she has heard nothing but great things from Michael’s landlord.

“It’s the best feeling in the world. You have to be willing to take a chance on people and I feel like this program does take a lot of chances. I love being part of this.”

– Marni Retynski, Helping Alaska Stabilization Grant Director

Relieving a Burden

Michael said that when he first moved in to his new home he was in disbelief.

He recalls hanging a piece of cardboard above the sink having written, “Keep the house clean, respect the neighbors and relax. This is your home.”

Having a safe place to sleep every night allowed Michael to focus on looking for a job. “It took a huge burden off my shoulders,” he said. Within one week of finding housing Michael got a job working for a contractor. He has been able to save money and said that he is focusing on setting himself up so that when his rental assistance ends he will be able to take care of himself.  

Building Community

Ashley Gaubatz is the operation supervisor and grant administrator for Helping Alaska’s Rent Relief and Homeowner Assistance programs. She has been with Helping Alaska for the last year and said that it has been life changing for her.

For Gaubatz, this work is about building community and helping people like Michael along their way. “Michael is the success story of this organization,” she said. “To see someone come through the doors unstable mentally, physically, emotionally, financially and watch them walk back out the opposite of all that makes every bit worth it.

To others who are unsure about asking for help Gaubatz’s message is simple.

“Give us a chance. Let us prove to you that we are here to include and not disqualify. We are here for you, not against you.”

– Ashley Gaubatz, Operation Supervisor and Grant Administrator

Making Tremendous Progress

Less than a year ago, Michael was living in a sleeping bag. Today he is settled in his own apartment, has a job that he enjoys and recently saved up and bought a truck. He is registered for fall classes at UAF where he has been accepted into the diesel mechanics program.

Michael expressed his appreciation to the navigators at Helping Alaska, “I’d say I’m friends with everybody here at Helping Alaska. It brings a smile to my face just seeing everybody…I really appreciate [them].”

Having a stable place to call home has allowed Michael to focus on moving forward with other parts of his life but he acknowledges that rental assistance on its own won’t result in success.

“You have to want it. It’s not something that can be handed to you. You have to put the work in yourself, as well as other people reaching out to help.”

– Michael, Housing Stabilization and Recovery Participant

‘I am Proud of Myself’

Michael shared that he has been sober since December. He and his fiancée recently found out that they have a baby on the way, a boy.

Recalling how his life has changed over the last year Michael said, “I am proud of myself actually for the first time in a very long time. I’m proud that I haven’t given up because usually when things get hard, I do one of two things and that’s either give up or run. I chose to plant my feet and do what it takes to get better.”

We recognize that Michael’s story is exceptional and some Alaskans may be in need of safe, quality, affordable housing. If you are facing homelessness or are in need of resources, we encourage you to contact Alaska 2-1-1. This free, confidential resource can help you to locate assistance in your home community. Dial 2-1-1 or 1-800-478-2221 or visit alaska211.org.