The peninsula’s ninth annual Project Homeless Connect is right around the corner. At Wednesday’s luncheon for the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce, the event’s publicity chair, Jodi Stuart, gave a presentation on the results from last year as well as what to expect this time around.
“As we think about the holidays and spending time with family, also think about those who don’t have anything,” Stuart said on Wednesday. “That’s what this time is supposed to be about, helping our fellow neighbor.”
Project Homeless Connect is a one-day event that brings a variety of services related to homelessness to one central location so that those peninsula residents who are experiencing homelessness can access them quickly and easily. The event originated in San Francisco in 2004 and has since spread to cities throughout the country and around the state, including Anchorage, Soldotna and Juneau. The first Project Homeless Connect in Soldotna was in 2012, and this year Stuart said that Homer will be hosting an event as well.
Stuart said that part of the goal of Project Homeless Connect is to create more community partnerships and increase prioritization of resources for homelessness services by shedding light on just how prevalent the issue is in the community. In other communities around the country, Stuart said, Project Homeless Connect is often funded and run by the local government entity.
“But guess what? Our borough is not that kind of borough, so we don’t get that,” Stuart said. “We have to think outside the box.”
The event in Soldotna is put on by volunteers representing local businesses, nonprofits and government agencies, Stuart said. In the past, volunteers have provided services including housing vouchers, massage therapy, hair cuts and veterinary care to the event. At the 2019 Project Homeless Connect, for example, the Kenai Lions Club provided prescription glasses to those that needed them.
The day also serves as an opportunity to gather data that is used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to keep track of local trends regarding homelessness. Participants are asked to fill out a survey that collects demographic information and other data regarding how long they’ve been homeless, how many individuals are in their family and how they became homeless.
At the 2019 Project Homeless Connect, 126 individuals participated and represented a total of 318 people. Stuart said that what often happens is that one person will show up to the event and will collect resources that impact their whole family.
Nearly 70% of participants in 2019 reported having a disability, and a similar percentage, 68%, reported experiencing at least one of the following: alcohol or drug abuse, developmental or physical disability, mental health issues or HIV/AIDS.
Stuart described those numbers as “stark,” especially considering the lack of available local resources for mental health and addiction treatment.
Eleven percent of participants at the last event were U.S. military veterans. Nineteen percent attributed their homelessness to the loss of a job, while 16% attributed their situation to domestic violence.
When it comes to services like public transportation and emergency shelters, Stuart said, the demand is real, but the supply is severely lacking.
Ninety seven percent of participants said they would use a community bus route if one was available, and 89% said that they would use an emergency cold weather shelter if one existed. A volunteer work group has been planning for over a year to develop an emergency cold weather shelter that would use local churches. As of now the only form of public transportation, the Central Area Rural Transit System (CARTS), requires riders to make reservations a day in advance. Stuart also serves on the board of CARTS and said that right now it doesn’t fill the needs of the community.
“Our public transportation system … is not functional in regards to serving people who are marginalized,” Stuart said. “It just isn’t.”
On the day of the event, Stuart said that Alaska Cab will be providing free rides for people who wish to attend. To spread the word to those who would benefit from the event, local agencies that provide services to homeless individuals are handing out information to their clients on how they can participate and what will be provided.
The 2020 Project Homeless Connect will take place on Jan. 29 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. Those who wish to volunteer or help with planning can contact Stuart at 907-283-3125. The next planning meeting is Tuesday, Dec. 10 at noon at the Independent Living Center and is open to the public.
“I encourage each and every one of you to think about how your business can participate or how your governmental position can facilitate something,” Stuart said. “Figure out what your role in solving this problem is, because it’s going to take all of us to make that happen.”