The last time Sam Garcia walked out of the prison doors, a Goose Creek corrections bus dropped him off at Anchorage’s Fourth Avenue jail. Wearing the clothes he was arrested in, and with a small trash bag of court documents and personal letters, he started walking. An hour-and-a-half later, he had a job as a houseman at the GuestHouse Inn. 

He was upfront about where he’d been and why he’d been there. Management gave him a chance.

That was spring 2016. A Nugen’s Ranch treatment program, a lot of hard work and several jobs later, Garcia has come full circle. He’s back at the GuestHouse, which had transformed into affordable housing for those working to put homelessness behind them. And, he’s giving back as a peer support manager for Henning Inc., a nonprofit supporting people on the road to self-sufficiency and apartments of their own. 

Garcia knows what it means to struggle with addictions and homelessness. His path to substance abuse began in the third grade. He spent his first night in jail at 13. Before his last arrest, he’d been using heroin and meth off-and-on for a decade. 

At the GuestHouse, he mentors peer support team members and matches them with clients who’ve experienced similar traumas and challenges that led to losing their homes.

Being housed is one thing, staying housed is another, said Bob Doehl, a Rasmuson Foundation Senior Fellow focused homelessness issues. It’s about working through problems that got the person homeless in the first place. 

“Peer support, those who’ve gone down that same path, is one of the most effective ways out there in terms of being able to understand the challenges, communicate and connect,” he said. “You have somebody to walk beside you who’s been through it and has found a pathway to recovery.”

The GuestHouse isn’t a shelter; residents pay rent either by working or through housing vouchers or other assistance. By leasing their rooms, they can build a rental history and eventually get into their own apartments. That’s critical, Doehl said, especially in a city with a 96% occupancy rate.

“If you’re making minimum wage and want to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Anchorage, you’d have to work 93 hours a week,” he said. “Even with two roommates that’s a heavy lift.”

That’s where housing like the GuestHouse comes in. 

“Unlike an open shelter, you don’t have to worry about your ID or uniform being stolen. You can take a shower when you’re off shift and get a good rest when off shift,” Doehl said.

For dozens of Alaskans with extremely low incomes, the GuestHouse is becoming the foundation, the needed stability to get a job or a better job, the stepping stone to an apartment of one’s own. 

Garcia is there to help, because he’s been there.