Mersha Tamrat, right, gives free haircuts to attendees at the 13th Annual Project Homeless Connect at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Mersha Tamrat, right, gives free haircuts to attendees at the 13th Annual Project Homeless Connect at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska, on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)

Helping with ‘the step up’

Project Homeless Connect returns for 13th year in Soldotna

Project Homeless Connect returned to the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Tuesday for its 13th year. The annual event seeks to connect those experiencing housing insecurity — not just homelessness — with services in the local community to help them seek a more secure future.

“This is an opportunity for vendors to come together, under one roof, and provide services,” said Leslie Rohr, one of the event’s organizers and executive director of Love INC. “Hopefully connect with the vulnerable population in our community.”

Ahead of the event, Jodi Stuart, another organizer, said that more than 30 vendors were registered to provide resources. The event filled the meeting rooms at the complex and spilled out into the hallways. Attendees moved from booth to booth chatting with people, picking up free supplies, partaking of a hot meal or getting a free haircut.

A provided list of vendors says that there were resources for homeless prevention, disability, vision screening, medical care, child care, pet care, shelters, sober living, food service, pregnancy, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, vaccines, and identification from the Department of Motor Vehicles, among others.

One of those vendors was the Freedom House, which House Manager Gail Kennedy said is a faith-based transitional home for people coming through recovery. She said they help residents learn home skills like cooking and obtain driver’s licenses.

“Our heart is to get people sober and back living their lives,” she said.

Rohr said she’s been involved with the local Homeless Connect event for all 13 of its years — that she’s seen it grow.

“I’ve always been impressed when we look at our exit surveys — people leave here feeling respected, feel like needs have been met, and they have a better sense of what’s available in the community,” she said. “That’s what we want.”

The goal, Rohr said, is to replace fear with hope — to provide tools to help people move through housing insecurity.

Participating in Homeless Connect is also an opportunity for all the varied service providers to make connections of their own, Kennedy said.

“We are really fighting for the same goal. That’s to get people sober, healthy, mentally, physically, emotionally.”

Rohr said that in addition to offering aid to those experiencing housing insecurity, the event doubles as an effort to quantify how many people are contending with housing issues in each community. To that end, each attendee was asked the “one-night question” — where they slept on Jan. 29. The goal is to create an impression of who’s unsheltered, who’s living in substandard housing, who’s “on the verge.”

People facing housing insecurity take many forms, Rohr said.

“They’re sitting next to you in church. Their kids are in the classroom. They’re the checker at the grocery store. They are a part of our community, and we need to embrace them and help them make the step up.”

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