Editor’s note: This article has been changed to correct the title of Lisa Roberts, the chairperson of Project Homeless Connect.
More than 130 homeless or near-homeless people got access to haircuts, food, clothing and services Thursday during the fifth annual Project Homeless Connect.
In an event put on through Kenai Peninsula Continuum of Care, those facing difficulty with housing, employment and other issues gathered at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex between 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Once there, they took entry evaluations that helped volunteers determine their top three needs that needed to be met that day by the approximately 15 vendors who showed up to provide services.
Participants are free to visit as many vendors as they’d like after their three main needs are addressed, said Logistics Chair Jodi Stuart. She said it is impossible to estimate the amount of money Project Homeless Connect invests in the people who attend based on all the goods, services and volunteer time donated.
“We get so many free hours from individuals, we get so much donated,” Stuart said.
“We live in the most generous community on the planet,” added Lisa Roberts, chairperson of Project Homeless Connect.
This year, the project had about 50 volunteers who prepared a week in advance, set the event up and took it down once it was done, Roberts said. That didn’t include volunteers from each vendor, she said.
A new addition to the event this year was the inclusion of a veterinary representative. Roberts said participants from previous years expressed their wish for resources for their pets as well.
Dr. Deborah Mersch of Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic in Soldotna came prepared with animal vaccines and the basics she needed to do physical exams on pets.
“For most people, their pets are like their kids, and so they’re going to have needs for the animals just like they would for their little people in their lives,” Mersch said. “Pets need care too. They have a built-in coat so they don’t necessarily need clothing, but they need food and water and they need, honestly, the rabies vaccine and the distemper parvo vaccines are very helpful.”
The end of the event was also extended from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. to accommodate homeless teens who might not be able to make it until after school, Roberts said. In addition to the cabs that bring people to and from the complex throughout the day, a van was donated this year by the Soldotna Church of God to make sure people without transportation could still benefit from the project.
Some who attend, like Kasilof resident Sandra Groller and her partner, have a place to live but are close to being homeless or are still in need of specific services. The pair have been coming to Project Homeless Connect for the last two years, Groller said.
After being homeless for three years in the Mat-Su Valley, Groller said they now live in a dry cabin with an outhouse where she needs to tote water and wood. Groller said she is mentally disabled, so getting connected with Peninsula Community Health Services of Alaska is a big part of why she attends the project.
“Getting connected with the health care and transportation they were the biggest hurtles we had,” Groller said. “This is where we made our home, and without some of these community resources, it’d be really hard to have a new life here. It helps with the relocation.”
Others, like Monieque Essig, have almost everything they need but are still stuck without a home. Essig said even after getting a job and a monthly voucher to help toward rent, she has yet to find a place to live. The fact that she has been homeless for the last three years seems to impede her ability to find a place to rent, she said.
“It’s very frustrating,” Essig said. “I’m working, still doing counseling. Positive, day-by-day steps.”
Stuart said the biggest change to the project since its inception has been the inclusion of more services people won’t likely get elsewhere.
“We have branched out including more hairdressers, veterinary services, more massages,” she said. “Those are things that are a luxury. There’s no possible way that these people are going to go, ‘I’m going to spend my money on this when I don’t have a roof over my head and I might be able to use that for gas in my car.’”
Of the services provided, haircuts and massages are the most popular among participants, Stuart and Roberts said. More agency-related services, like the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, are also popular and are available to give people information and connect them with the right people to help solve the barriers they’re up against.
Lenore Wells of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s Soldotna office said a variety of people tend to come to her station, from people already involved with the agency and checking their status to newcomers looking to get on the wait list for getting the housing vouchers it offers.
“Our wait list right now is really long, so about nine months for our new applicants,” Wells said. “It’s been shorter and then it’s been longer too, so it really depends on you know current economics.”
The organization works with local independent landlords to offer rental assistance to people trying to find a place, the amount of which is determined based on income.
Those who attend Project Homeless Connect also take an exit survey. The data is reported to the state and compiled into a report that organizers use to evaluate how the event went and what can be improved upon. This year’s preliminary count of 130-135 attendees is a large increase compared to last year’s 89 participants, though Stuart and Roberts said many people who come to the event are there representing several other family members who in turn benefit from the information and donations they get.
“It’s, what would you want if you didn’t have anything?” Stuart said. “And whatever the answer is to that question, that’s what we try to bring in every year.”
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.