Inside the tent, Andrea Weinstein could hear footsteps all night long. She and her partner, Richard Lekanoff, had been living in their tent for two and a half years. Valley of the Moon Park, the Park Strip, the trees behind Sullivan Arena — they had moved wherever felt safe. But nowhere felt truly safe. Outside the tent, people walked back and forth in the snow. The wind howled, burying the voices surrounding her. Andrea tried to sleep. But she was tired of being on guard every second. Tired of feeling unsafe.
Across town, Tusi Mareko was starting a new job. She was frustrated; after only a week on the job, she had been asked to work remotely, along with the rest of CITC’s staff, due to precautions around COVID-19. Tusi understood that safety was important, but she was feeling disconnected from the people she was supposed to be working with, both her coworkers and the people she served.
Meanwhile, Bean’s Café staff scrambled to open emergency shelters for the homeless at local city-owned arenas, including the Sullivan Arena. Here, they would house anyone experiencing homelessness in an effort to help protect a vulnerable population from COVID-19. In addition to temporary shelter, Bean’s would offer connections to employment services, housing options, addiction treatments, and other help. To provide these services, Bean’s invited CITC to work onsite in tents outside Sullivan Arena.
A homeless couple, a new CITC employee, and a temporary shelter: This is the story of how a pandemic brought all three together and helped two people start a new life.
Window of Opportunity
“I saw my window of opportunity to learn more about CITC’s services firsthand,” said Tusi about the email that went out in April, calling upon willing CITC employees to staff the service tents outside Sullivan Arena.
As a CITC job coach, Tusi’s mission is to create work plans for job-seekers who are work-ready. But she had barely started her job when CITC transitioned most of its staff to remote work. Without people to serve, Tusi spent her days reading old plans created by her coworkers and documents that enlightened her about CITC’s other programs and services.
But when she saw an opportunity to volunteer at Sullivan, she jumped at the chance.
As a former employee for the Division of Public Health, Tusi had worked extensively with homeless populations through a project that provided tuberculosis screenings. “I was connected with these folks at Sullivan,” she explained. “I knew how to communicate with them and the kinds of needs they would have.”
At Sullivan Arena, Tusi worked closely with CITC Employment & Training Senior Manager Brittany Suralta to learn how to connect those in need with CITC services. Before long, she was working on her own, writing up job plans and helping people secure temporary housing outside the shelter.
For eight and a half years, Richard and Andrea had lived in two bedroom apartment on Seward Highway. But when their landlord died, they were unexpectedly evicted. With nowhere else to go, they pitched a tent near Valley of the Moon Park.
When COVID-19 hit, Richard and Andrea moved into the temporary shelter at Sullivan Arena. There, they heard that CITC was offering help for people experiencing homelessness.
“I’m just thankful for Tusi because she lifted my life,” Andrea said, remembering her first meeting with the CITC job coach outside Sullivan Arena.
“We wanted to get off the street, but without anybody to help and guide you, it’s kind of hard,” Richard added.
Tusi provided that help, starting with letting Richard know that to be eligible for assistance, he needed to clear up an outstanding warrant on his record. “Without this requirement for the program, Richard would be looking over his shoulder about that one thing,” Tusi explained. “But now he doesn’t have to worry about it. That was important to him.”
With that issue taken care of, Richard and Andrea moved out of the Sullivan Arena shelter and into the Econo Inn.
Inn life was only temporary, though. The first step to permanent housing was finding work — and because both Richard and Andrea were work-ready, Tusi recommended them for the Subsidized Work Experience (SWE).
Through SWE, CITC places participants in job positions with community partner organizations for a specified period of time. During that time, CITC will pay a portion or all of a participant’s salary while they gain valuable employment experience.
Richard and Andrea both landed SWE positions with Bean’s Café, washing dishes, cleaning, and doing COVID-related sanitation of the facilities. As their case manager, Tusi connected them with work-related items they needed, like bus passes, clothing, and good shoes.
“You take a couple who are motivated to be self-sufficient like Richard and Andrea and you provide them the right tools — and now they’re on the path to self-sufficiency,” said Holly Morales, CITC’s director of Employment and Training Services.
Meanwhile, Tusi was one of four CITC employees recently recognized with the CITC President’s Susten Award for displaying CITC values.
From Homeless to Home
After just two weeks at Bean’s Café, Richard and Andrea were both recommended for positions at The Children’s Lunchbox program. After 15 years without a job, in Andrea’s case, the couple worked with Tusi to reacclimate to what was expected on the job.
“At one point, they weren’t showing up at work because they were sick,” Tusi elaborated. “But they weren’t calling in. I coached them and let them know the professional thing to do.”
“This is my opportunity to finally get a job instead of being homeless, to lift up my life and find a better way of living,” Andrea said.
With steady income, Andrea and Richard were soon able to move out of the Econo Inn and into a one-bedroom apartment. Staff from both Bean’s and The Children’s Lunchbox donated furniture to furnish the apartment, while Tusi finagled a moving company to help the couple fetch the furniture over Labor Day weekend.
“They did this. We just supported them,” Tusi summarized, pointing out that CITC is committed to working alongside people as they establish their new careers. SWE isn’t just about helping people get work experience; it’s about setting them up to succeed.
Just a few weeks ago, Tusi got word that The Children’s Lunchbox would like to keep both Richard and Andrea on as permanent employees.
“That’s the goal — to place people with employers, and for the employer to provide them with the training, and then hopefully hire them directly,” Tusi said. “Andrea and Richard were motivated to work. With just a little assistance, they changed their lives.”