It was a spa day. A day to get a help at a clinic. A day to enjoy food and music. And a day to reach out and make new friends.
At the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, hundreds of members of the community came together for Project Homeless Connect, an annual event providing free services and resources to those in need.
By mid-morning, the sports center was packed with visitors who took turns in massage chairs and at the beauty salon, who picked out coats and clothes from tables laden with winter wear or who enjoyed soups, pastries and pizza from a buffet table.
Meeting different needs
People with a variety of needs attended. Some needed immediate help with housing or health care. Some came to supplement a tight budget or connect with public service agencies.
Kenai resident Amanda Pallones, who was attending the event for the third time this year, said she came out to access services she otherwise would have to spend time and gas seeking at different locations around town.
Her husband got laid off about a month ago and the two are waiting for his unemployment to kick in. She’s considering signing up for food stamps, but hopes he’ll get hired before that happens. A mom of three daughters, Pallones said the event helps her take care of personal needs that her low-income family can’t always afford.
“One thing that I noticed — it’s kinda a good thing and a bad thing — I always put everybody else first, before myself,” she said. “And so, like, haircuts and new shoes and new coats, I don’t get for myself.”
She was hoping to get a massage at the event, but she forgot to sign up in time. She was able to get a hair trim and some clothes for herself.
“To be able to take advantage of looking through all the donations — it just helps,” she said.
Connecting visitors to care
Attendees began their day at the event with an intake interview to help volunteers connect them with their most immediate needs. Volunteers then helped them navigate the booths to get the care they needed.
Jodi Stuart, Project Homeless Connect media chairperson, said that an initial count showed that 123 people completed individual intakes and 39 vendors provided a variety of services at this year’s event.
Sherra Pritchard, a Kenai Public Health nurse, provided information on opioids and Narcan — a drug that can help reverse an opioid overdose — to those who needed it.
“I think the great thing about this whole event, is providing that awareness that no one is immune to opioids,” Pritchard said. “I think it’s seeded its way into every class in the nation and into our community, and just having that perspective in our community is a good thing.”
Shari Conner, with the Change 4 the Kenai coalition, was handing out bags that allow for the safe disposal of medications. The bags use activated charcoal and water to deactivate medication so it can be safely thrown away. Conner said the organization, which promotes education on signs of overdose and addiction, was partnering with public health to connect attendees with Narcan kits. Stuart said volunteers gave out 49 Narcan kits during the event.
Taking a spa day
Caitlin Sparks, owner of Kenai Peninsula Massage Therapy, offered free massages to attendees. Sparks, who participated in the event for the second time this year, said people can sometimes be reluctant to get a massage, but always come out feeling better.
“Once they’re done with their massage, it’s a lot of, ‘Oh, that felt so good, I’m glad you convinced me to do this,’” she said. “It’s never a negative reaction.”
Sparks said she enjoyed getting out of the office and giving back to the community, particularly with homelessness being a pervasive problem in the community.
“I think it’s important to give back to this population because there’s a lot of struggle going on and whatever we can do to help is important,” she said.
Donald Akers, who said he was referred to the event by counselors at the Peninsula Community Health Services, came to the event to get extra winter clothes and some propane. He said he lives in a fifth-wheel trailer along Funny River Road, and only had enough propane to keep his trailer warm for about three more days. It was his first time attending the event, and he said so far he was enjoying it.
“So far it’s been OK,” he said. “I’ve got a meal. I’ve got warmth.”
Krissanna French and her daughter Calysta Lopez sat next to each other in salon chairs getting haircuts. Besides getting some much needed self care — both got massages earlier in the day — the two wanted to explore how to get housing assistance. The two share a duplex with family in Kenai with plumbing problems that prevent them from using water.
“Whenever we have our water running, it is literally flooding the neighbors house,” French said. “For the most part the water is off for most of the day. We can’t wash dishes. We can’t take showers. We can’t brush our teeth.”
They live on a month-to-month lease with limited income, so getting together a security deposit and first month’s rent for a new place is a challenge. Lopez said she started a GoFundMe account to raise money to move, but so far had only raised about $20.
French said she was able to get an eye exam and referral for updated glasses and a new blanket.
“I got my favorite color, too,” she said.
Lopez said she got some resources on Kenai Peninsula College, which the 22-year-old hoped she would eventually attend.
“I think everyone should come over here if they’re homeless,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for people to help.”
Melissa Kline, who manages the Independent Living Center on Kalifornsky Beach Road, handed out backpacks, blankets and comfort kits packed with personal hygiene items at the event. The Independent Living Center is part of the Continuum of Care — a network of social service and nonprofit organizations that tackle the issue of homelessness and that helped organize Project Homeless Connect seven years ago. Kline said the organization tries to put together at least 200 blankets, backpacks and comfort kits for the event.
Kline’s 14-year-old daughter Catie began the comfort kit project three years ago in an effort to earn her Girl Scouts Silver Award. Catie and volunteers spend about three months each year collecting items for the kits, which are packed with hygiene and personal products, for attendees to take home.
“I really enjoy doing this event and helping people,” Catie said.
Kenai Middle School student Aleea Faulkner took a page from Catie’s book for her own Silver Award project.
The 12-year-old spearheaded “For the Love of Socks” — a project to collect socks to hand out to members of the community.
“I wanted to get my Silver Award and it wanted to help out in the community, so I thought it would be a good idea to do socks,” she said. “Because socks are the least donated clothing item that’s most needed for the homeless. They’re really important because walking in Alaska snow your feet can get cold.”
Faulkner left decorated buckets at local businesses in an effort to collect 300 pairs of socks. People ended up donating about 800. To give the project a personal touch, Faulkner and her fellow Girl Scouts wrote notes on foam hearts and pinned them to each pair of socks.
“Just to let everyone know we care,” she said.
Each person at the event got to take home four pairs of socks, as well as four pairs of socks for members of their family.
“I’m really excited and I’m really glad I got to help out,” she said. “It feels really good.”
Wausaumoutouikwe Sandman-Shelifoe, who stays at the Calvary Life Fellowship, picked up socks at the booth. She said her four young children are notorious for misplacing or damaging their socks.
“Socks as a cost for a family of six is insurmountable sometimes when you have to pay the bills first,” she said.
Building a better life
Jason Warfle, an employment services technician with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, provided general information about the agency’s job center. The center helps job seekers prepare resumes and get ready for job interviews. Warfle said the event provides a comfortable setting for people to get more information about jobs.
“I think that so far today we’ve had a few people who we see in the job center who don’t always engage in conversation with us,” he said. “But in this forum they seem to ask more questions, and it’s an opportunity to encourage them to speak up and ask for help.”
Soldotna resident Stacy Nielsen came to the event to get housing help — she wants to refinance the mortgage on her trailer — and a haircut that will help her in her job search.
She said she’s been looking for a job, but found it challenging to get around in a geographically spread-out community where there is limited public transportation. She said she got her car running for the first time in two and a half years this week and is excited about looking for jobs.
“That is why I’m getting a haircut. It’s because I know I’m going on some interviews,” she said. “I’ve been praying about a haircut, so here I am.”