Scott Morris smiles during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Scott Morris smiles during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Day to reach out, connect

Project Homeless Connect provides support, services for those experiencing homelessness.

Dozens of volunteers spent time Wednesday with members of the homeless and near-homeless community to connect, share a meal and help get their neighbors back on their feet.

Project Homeless Connect, which was hosted in the central peninsula at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, is an annual nationwide event that consolidates into one central location all the local resources that someone experiencing homelessness might need. The project started in San Francisco in 2004, but has since made its way across Alaska, with Soldotna, Homer, Seward, Anchorage, Wasilla and Fairbanks all hosting events this year.

Many of the peninsula residents who attended this year said they had struggled with homelessness for years, sometimes decades. Regardless of the situation that put them there — whether it was escaping domestic violence, struggling with substance abuse or losing a job — each attendee had a story to tell and a plan for the future.

Scott Morris is a former landscaper and oil field worker who plans to head home to Tulsa, Oklahoma, after living in Alaska for the past 19 years. Morris said that he was shot in the chest in 1998, and while recovering from the incident he began abusing alcohol.

“Before then I was just a common weekend warrior,” Morris said. “I worked all week long cutting grass in Tulsa, and then when I was shot I became a drunk. Ronald the Drunk.”

Ronald is Morris’ first name, but he said he has gone by Scott ever since he sobered up almost five years ago.

“Scott is who I really am. Ronald the Drunk hasn’t been around in about five years,” Morris said.

Morris, 51, said he became homeless after losing his job in the oil fields on the North Slope. Morris currently has a place to stay, but recently decided to head back home to help care for his mother, who he said is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.

Morris said that the biggest hurdles for him and others experiencing homelessness on the peninsula were the lack of public transportation and the absence of well-paying jobs.

“Where’s the day labor? Where’s the temporary services?” Morris said. “I mean it’s not a complaint, it’s just reality. Alaska’s a tough state. You gotta be a tough individual to live here.”

Sandra Groller was waiting in line for a haircut and holding a form from the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation that would help her secure financial assistance for her living situation. Groller said that after getting her housing and health issues under control, she had plans to go to college and start her own commercial sewing business.

“We live in a dry cabin, and it’s just really hard on us,” Groller said, referring to her partner. “And (AHFC) has a year long waiting list, so there’s some stepping stones along the way.”

At the Soldotna event, local agencies like Love, INC, the LeeShore Center, Freedom House, Peninsula Community Health Services and the Kenai Peninsula Reentry Coalition were there to provide information and get people signed up for all the services they provide. Local restaurants like Fine Thyme Cafe, Odie’s Deli and Arby’s provided free hot meals alongside the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, and a food pantry staffed by Skyview Middle School students was there to ensure people wouldn’t walk out wondering when their next meal would come from.

Some of the volunteers and service providers had firsthand experience with the issues facing the homeless population, such as Katie Cowgill, vice president of the board of the Reentry Coalition. Cowgill said that she had attended Project Homeless Connect events in the past as someone experiencing homelessness and said it felt good to be on the other side, helping others in situations similar to her own.

“I think I have a unique view,” Cowgill said. “I feel like I know what isn’t working. I know what people really, really need, and I also think I have a little bit of an idea of what people are unwilling to seek help for.”

The Reentry Coalition provides support and resources for individuals who were recently incarcerated. At Project Homeless Connect Cowgill and Coalition President Fred Koski were providing information on their organization as well as handing out portable mess kits — microwavable plastic containers that include utensils — and reusable towels condensed to the size of breath mints that expand when wet. By the end of the day, Koski said they had given away all 45 of their mess kits, and only a few towel packs remained.

Many of the attendees brought their pets with them, and a veterinarian was there for most of the day to provide free health screenings. Kenai Peninsula Animal Lovers provided free bags of pet food and leashes.

Kenneth Russell was there with his dog, Ichabod, also known as “Icky.” Russell is a veteran and said that he was deployed to Tikrit and Baghdad at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. After returning home, Russell said that he struggled with suicidal ideation for years, and his declining mental health is how he found himself homeless. Russell got Icky almost two years ago and has since secured an apartment in Soldotna through the Veteran’s Administration’s HUD-VASH housing voucher program. Russell attributes Icky as a big reason why he was able to get back on his feet and seek help.

“If I didn’t have him, I don’t think that I would have been able to mentally climb that hurdle and keep going,” Russell said. “I think that training an animal and keeping an animal, I don’t know, it gives you purpose. It gives you motivation. It gives you something to keep looking forward to.”

The Lions Club was there handing out reading glasses. Volunteers were also on-site providing free haircuts and massages. Donated clothes and hand-knitted hats were also in abundance for those who struggle to keep warm while withstanding the below-freezing winter weather.

One of the volunteers, Diane Fielden, said that simply seeing the look on someone’s face after getting their hair cut made her day.

“You watch this transformation come over them when they stand up out of the chair and their standing up straighter than they were when they sat down,” Fielden said. “It’s just emotional for me.”

Fielden said that she has volunteered in many capacities over the years, but that volunteering at Project Homeless Connect was one of the most rewarding experiences she’s had and recommended that everyone should try it.

“It’s just so needed, and they appreciate it so much,” Fielden said. “Every single person here is so appreciative and so patient, even when they have to wait 30, 40 minutes in line for a haircut. Take the chance and volunteer, because you’re going to get a thousand percent more out of this than you will anything else you do today.”

Kenneth Russell and his dog Ichabod, aka “Icky,” attend the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenneth Russell and his dog Ichabod, aka “Icky,” attend the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Junetta Delong gets her hair cut during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Junetta Delong gets her hair cut during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Danielle Bauman and her dog Dozer attend the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Danielle Bauman and her dog Dozer attend the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Wanda Seierup, case manager for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, speaks with Sandra Groller during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Wanda Seierup, case manager for the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, speaks with Sandra Groller during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Jennifer Waller, left, Gail Kennedy, right, and Meiko the therapy dog from Freedom House attend the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Jennifer Waller, left, Gail Kennedy, right, and Meiko the therapy dog from Freedom House attend the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Pam Rickard visits with Collette the therapy dog during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Pam Rickard visits with Collette the therapy dog during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Sandra Groller, left, and “JD” attend the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Sandra Groller, left, and “JD” attend the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Sandra Groller gets her hair cut by Gail Kennedy of Freedom House during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Sandra Groller gets her hair cut by Gail Kennedy of Freedom House during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Skyview Middle School students Brooke Walters, Josie Josephson and Milo Gilliam volunteer for the food pantry during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Skyview Middle School students Brooke Walters, Josie Josephson and Milo Gilliam volunteer for the food pantry during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Henry Smith checks out his fresh haircut courtesy of Gail Kennedy during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Henry Smith checks out his fresh haircut courtesy of Gail Kennedy during the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Jan. 29, 2020. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

More in News

Drummers perform during a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai, Alaska, on Friday, July 12, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenaitze tribe celebrates 10 years of ‘far-fetched dream’ at wellness center

Community members recognized the work done at the Dena’ina Wellness Center over the past decade

The Kenai Safeway is seen on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai and Soldotna Safeways may be sold under proposed Kroger-Albertsons merger

The local stores will be sold to CS Wholesale Grocers only if the merger overcomes suit from the FTC

Sockeye salmon caught in a set gillnet are dragged up onto the beach at a test site for selective harvest setnet gear in Kenai, Alaska, on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Draft plan published for disbursement of $11.5 million in 2021 and 2022 ESSN disasters

Public comment will be accepted for the draft spend plan until July 24

The Kasilof River is seen from the Kasilof River Recreation Area, July 30, 2019, in Kasilof, Alaska. (Photo by Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion)
King salmon fishing closed on Kasilof starting Monday

The emergency order is being issued to protect returning king salmon, citing weak returns

Soldotna City Hall is seen on Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna’s city council appropriates funds for FY 2025 capital projects

Improvements are described for streets, police facility, Soldotna Creek Park and Soldotna Community Memorial Park

Gina Plank processes sockeye salmon caught on the first day of Kenai River dipnetting with her table set up on the bank of the Kenai River in Kenai, Alaska, on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai River open for dipnetting

As of Tuesday, a total of 226,000 sockeye had been counted in the Kenai River’s late run

Assembly Vice President Tyson Cox speaks during a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly in Soldotna, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Assembly won’t pursue further discussion on tabled bed tax resolution

Members say they’re going to work on a new version of the idea this winter

Gov. Mike Dunleavy pictured with members of the House majority after signing the fiscal year 2025 budget bills, Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Anchorage, Alaska. From left to right: Reps. Stanley Wright, Tom McKay, Thomas Baker, Craig Johnson, Kevin McCabe, Julie Coulombe and Laddie Shaw. (Photo provided by Office of the Governor)
Dunleavy signs capital budget with $3.7M in state funding for Kenai Peninsula, vetoes $3.3M

Roughly $90 million in federal funding also allocated to Kenai Peninsula

Alaska State Troopers logo.
Soldotna man arrested Friday after 30-minute police chase

The man had an outstanding warrant for felony probation violation

Most Read