The first time Johnny Sisneros met a governor of Alaska he was running his own business, he lived in Kenai and Tony Knowles was in office.
Today, Sisneros, 29, will meet an Alaska governor for the second time in his life, but under slightly different circumstances.
As part of Gov. Bill Walker’s efforts this month to shine a light on the less fortunate during Homelessness Awareness Month, the Governor’s Mansion will host patrons from the Glory Hole Shelter for a special lunch.
According to Aileen Cole, Walker’s deputy press secretary, this is the first time Glory Hole patrons have been invited to the mansion.
Last week Walker and his wife, Donna, took part in a “sleep out” near the Covenant House in Anchorage. It was a fundraiser that raised awareness about the reality of sleeping outside on a cold Alaska night when, as is the case for some, only blankets and cardboard boxes offer shelter.
Now, from the comfort of their home in Juneau and with access to a build-your-own-burrito bar, the pair will get to sit down with people living through what they only experienced for one night, people like Sisneros.
For Sisneros, a recovering drug addict who transferred to Juneau from Kenai to finish a sentencing at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center, the lunch is an opportunity to show the Walkers the different shades of homelessness and shatter some misconceptions.
“It’s hard when you have an addiction to bring yourself to a place like this,” Sisneros said. “But it’s worked out pretty well.”
Sisneros said barring one drug relapse after his release, his days are spent at the library, job hunting or in support group meetings. Homelessness does not look like just one thing and it probably can’t be fully understood after just one lunch, but Sisneros said he’s looking forward to making this connection with Walker and maybe even talking over some state improvement plans.
“Obviously the community cares,” Sisneros said, sitting at a table on the second floor inside the Glory Hole and surrounded by mounds of donated winter jackets in every color.
The issue he’s faced and has seen friends on the street face is tackling that first hurdle on the way to permanent housing — waiting.
“When an addict or an alcoholic gets to a point in their life, when they are coming in and asking for help at a residential facility and it’s like, ‘Here, take this paper work, fill this 18-page packet out and return it to us in a week,’ you know you’ll be on a waiting list for six months,” Sisneros said. “That person’s not going to come back.”
Not everyone has the determination to also stay sober as a requirement, which is a shame since stable housing is the first step to stable living, Sisneros said. The prospect of a place like Housing First, the first complex in Juneau to grant homeless people residence without requiring they abstain from alcohol or other legal acts, means a real chance for change.
Trevor Kellar, the outreach coordinator for the Glory Hole, said he is excited about today not just because he too will sit down with the governor, but because of what this meal means to people
“It’s amazing that (Walker) would think about our guys,” Kellar said. “They’re good people and… they’re just as important as anybody else in our community. The fact that they’re welcome at Alaska’s governor’s mansion, I think that says a lot to our guests that they would get an invite like that. It empowers our guys and it says ‘You matter.’”
The open invitation to the Glory Hole also came with a special request from Walker that Charles Wheaton, a former Glory Hole patron now making a home at St. Vincent de Paul, have lunch with his old crew.
Cole said the Walkers read about Wheaton’s journey out of homelessness and his desire to remain charitable in the community after reading an article in the Empire and wanted to sit down with him.
“I’m more nervous than ever,” Wheaton said from his apartment where slowly furniture has made its way, helping his home take shape. “I’m trying to change to be a role model to other homeless people.”
Forty guests are expected to attend today’s lunch, which is the usual amount the Glory Hole sees everyday for lunch. Sisneros said he isn’t sure the meal will stand to par with the excellent meals Glory Hole chef Stephan Sherman prepares, but he’ll make do with what he’s given for a chance to break bread with the governor.
• Contact reporter Paula Ann Solis at 523-2272 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.