A wide variety of services were available Tuesday at the 12th annual Project Homeless Connect, held at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Starting at 9 a.m., rows of tables and booths were manned by volunteers, each representing one of more than 30 services available for free to those experiencing housing insecurity. Dozens of people could be seen having conversations with volunteers, benefitting from services available and smiling.
Co-chair Kathy Gensel and Love INC Executive Director Leslie Rohr said this year’s Project Homeless Connect was able to bring several new vendors and services, and that though they hadn’t yet received attendance numbers, the event had been a success.
“The bottom line is, if one person got their needs met, then it was worth it,” Rohr said.
Food, clothing, health care, immunizations, legal advice, haircuts, massages and animal care were all available. Resources were also available for those dealing with domestic abuse, those struggling with alcohol, drug and tobacco use, and those in need of shelter.
Frank Alioto, a co-leader for the event, said those in need would check in and then guided to the services they needed. He said organizers take down names and ask people where they last slept — important metrics for how the community is doing. The goal is that people get the help they need and don’t find themselves returning year after year.
A visually arresting element of the production was a row of haircut and massage stations that filled much of one wall of the space. There was room for several haircuts at a time, with specialized professionals available for both men and women. Hand massages were performed on one side, back massages on the other.
Mersha Tamrat, who usually works at Raw Cuts in Soldotna, said he had been donating haircuts at Project Homeless Connect for five years. He said that he was passionate about cutting hair, and that the service can do a lot for folks in need by improving their self-image and their confidence.
“It’s a psychological thing,” he said. “If I went to an interview and I didn’t have a lot of nice clothes, a haircut could take you a long way.”
Tamrat went on to describe the haircuts as akin to a therapy session. He said clients would tell him about something exciting in their life, or that he would have the opportunity to offer a moment of comfort “if they’ve got something going on.”
A similar sentiment was expressed by Heather Rasch, of Mountain Magic Massage, who said she had been giving massages at Project Homeless Connect for many years.
“A lot of these people don’t get very much touch, they have a lot of aches and pains in their body,” she said. “Having some human touch is really comforting for them.”
Rasch described feeling stress and tension as she began to massage clients, then visually seeing their muscles relax.
“We see some lightness in their face and a twinkle in their eye,” she said.
A new and exciting addition to the roster of services this year, Alioto said, was the Alaska Department of Motor Vehicles, which ran a table providing information about acquisition of Real ID and set up appointments for driving tests.
The convenience of gathering so many services together was undeniable, said Kenai Public Health Center Nurse Amanda McKinley. She sat at a booth offering COVID-19 vaccinations, boosters and testing, as well as the flu vaccine, fentanyl test kits and resources for a variety of services available at the center, including sexually transmitted infection testing.
For folks with dogs or cats, Kenai Peninsula Animal Lovers and the Kenai Peninsula Spay/Neuter Fund were both present offering dog food, blankets, collars and leashes, as well as offering information and resources for adopting a pet, surrendering a pet, or seeking financial aid for getting a pet spayed or neutered.
Kelly Griebel and Amanda Motonaga were standing by the table Tuesday and answering questions from attendees.
Griebel, a representative of both organizations, said they were trying to educate people to prevent the birth of puppies or kittens that can’t be cared for, with funding available from the Spay/Neuter Fund to help people who potentially wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to.
“One cat can produce 18 offspring,” Motonaga said. If someone can’t afford to spay or neuter a cat, they won’t be able to afford the same for more than a dozen, she said.
Project Homeless Connect was open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday.
For more information about Project Homeless Connect, visit kenaipeninsulahomeless.org.
Reach reporter Jake Dye at peninsulaclarion.com.