After years of feeling like an empty shell, Karen cried tears of relief when she first moved into her one-bedroom apartment in AWARE’s transitional housing in Juneau.
“I had no idea how overwhelming it would be because I hadn’t had a place of my own in a long time. I’m just learning to be independent again,” she said.
AWARE, which stands for Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies, has provided emergency shelter in Juneau for women for decades and broke ground on a new transitional housing facility two years ago. It opened to residents in November.
The new 12-unit building — called Kaasei after the Tlingit name for women’s advocate Patti Bland who passed away in 2014 — is at full capacity. It’s home to a live-in manager and 26 people — 11 women and their children trying to make a fresh start.
Karen and her child moved into Kaasei earlier this year. Karen is not the woman’s real name. For the purpose of protecting her safety, the Empire is using a pseudonym instead. Details of her life are intentionally not being revealed to avoid giving away any identifying information.
Before moving into Kaasei, Karen spent years living in a verbally and emotionally abusive marriage. She said her ex-husband was an alcoholic, took pain pills and constantly berated her. Before he was arrested, he threatened her with weapons. She still lives with fear “that somehow he’ll make it to Juneau because he’s still angry at me.”
Karen was living in another Southeast Alaska community when she met her ex-husband. He knew her family, so she felt there was already a trust there.
“He was very charming, very sweet, said all the right things. Promised a lot of things. It felt like we had a connection,” Karen said.
When they got married, things continued to go well, “but he would get angry from time to time,” she said. “As the years went by, he got more and more angry at me. He would yell and scream at me and put me down.”
Karen and her ex-husband eventually had a child. When the kid was born, “I quit the partying and drinking. He continued on. It gradually got worse,” she said.
“Even though I knew the relationship wasn’t really going well, my son was growing and getting bigger. I tried to make happy memories. I tried to keep my son stimulated, happy. We’d go out and do things — go camping, fishing — just kept him busy a lot of the times. My husband just stayed home and drank, and then got mad at me at night,” Karen said.
When her ex-husband threatened her with weapons and trapped her and their child in their home, Karen called 911. That happened several times.
One night, one of these incidents escalated significantly in front of their child, who was “whimpering and scared,” Karen said. Her husband threatened to hurt several people. When he had his back turned, Karen and her child escaped.
“We just had a quick moment where we could slip out really quick without him noticing,” she said. She went to family friend’s house and called for help.
Her ex-husband was arrested.
“You would think it would just end once he’s in jail, but it doesn’t end. He got bailed out and kept contacting us,” she said. “Somehow he’s got to keep showing me he’s still around.”
Karen moved to Juneau and went to the AWARE’s emergency shelter. “It’s the safest place I could think of,” she said.
All those years of her ex-husband’s violent threats and mental and verbal abuse wore on Karen.
“It emotionally just beat me down,” she said. “I used to be confident, independent, not afraid. I don’t feel that way anymore.”
Now, she’s working on getting her identity and confidence back, and Kaasei is a big part of that. Karen said over and over how thankful she is for AWARE.
“If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where I’d be,” she said.
Like Karen, the majority of women who live or will live at Kaasei have stayed at AWARE’s emergency shelter, which has 32 beds. They’ve experienced communal living — shared bathrooms, shared kitchen, shared living space and kids room, lots of noise and people.
Kaasei offers something different, said Kaasei’s AWARE advocate Meryl Chew.
“A lot of the people who live here haven’t ever, or in a very long time, had a chance or opportunity to live on their own in a space that is safe and clean and nice and with support in it,” she said. “It’s been really stabilizing for a lot of people, like their kids are regularly attending school again or they’ve been able to gain employment again because they have a safe, grounded spot.”
At the shelter, the women are usually working on establishing safety, child custody, navigating the criminal justice system — “putting out fires,” as AWARE Deputy Director Mandy O’Neal Cole characterized it.
At Kaasei, “we have the chance to figure out, ‘Can you get a job? Do you need some kind of supportive employment? Ultimately, you’re going to have to bring in some kind of money into your household. How is that going to happen?’” Cole said.
“So there’s a huge emphasis on stabilizing in terms of financial success. That’s a big difference from the shelter — we have room to work on financial independence where we never had that before,” she added.
Apartments range from $500 to $800 a month depending on number of bedrooms. There are rules to living at Kaasei, like no drinking, no drugs and no adult visitors except during allotted family nights. Residents are required to regularly check in with Chew. For their protection, 22 security cameras surround the building and you need a code to get in.
With support and without fear for safety, Kaasei residents can work on themselves. Besides a financial literacy class, AWARE also offers classes in healthy relationships, parenting and dealing with trauma.
“I’ve come so far since when I first showed up,” Karen said. In the healthy relationships class, she’s learned to treat herself.
“Coffee is like my moment in the morning, and so I get special creamers and flavors and take my 10 minutes in the morning and just enjoy my coffee,” Karen said.
She never used to do that sort of thing.
“I have all these balls in the air, and for me to stop and say, ‘I want this for myself’ is hard,” Karen said. “It’s going from living with someone that’s constantly beating you down to telling yourself you’re worth it, you deserve this.”
Cole anticipates people living at Kaasei for up to two years. As residents leave, she hopes wherever they go, it’s where they want to go.
“They’re making a choice to go somewhere that fits what they need, rather than reacting all the time to just shortfall and crisis and scarcity and violence. They’re making an intentional choice to go to a place, and it’s not about where you have to be; it’s where you want to be,” Cole said. “If somebody gets that, I’m happy.”
Karen is currently unemployed and pays for her apartment with the help of tribal assistance. Her goal is to get a job, get off assistance completely and move into a permanent home.
In the meantime, Karen has been busy doing art projects, decorating her apartment and looking for a job. She said her child is happy “because we’re stable, not in a shelter. The apartment is ours. It’s home.”
• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or juneauempire.com.