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.”