The list of events for the 2021 Project Homeless Connect event. (Courtesy Jodi Stuart)

Pandemic shifts format of homeless outreach event

Project Homeless Connect this year will be spread out over two weeks and across different locations on the peninsula.

Project Homeless Connect — an annual event that provides a multitude of services to people experiencing homelessness — is in its 10th year on the Kenai Peninsula. This year the event will look very different as volunteers attempt to provide the same level of service in an environment that keeps people safe and healthy.

Jodi Stuart, media liaison for Project Homeless Connect and longtime organizer of the annual event, told the Clarion on Tuesday that she and other organizers have been planning for an alternate-style event since the fall of 2020, when statewide Project Homeless Connect organizers told the volunteers on the peninsula that COVID mitigation protocols would prohibit the traditional one-day, one-stop-shop format.

Project Homeless Connect, in addition to providing essential services, provides an opportunity for the Kenai Peninsula Continuum of Care to obtain an accurate Point in Time Count, which is used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to estimate the severity of homelessness in a given area. The Point in Time Count asks those who participate where they slept on a given night, whether it was in a home, somewhere “nonhabitable” such as a tent or a car, or an emergency shelter. For this year, the Point in Time Count will ask people where they slept on the night of Jan. 26.

The Project Homeless Connect event this year will be spread out over two weeks and across different locations on the peninsula. On Jan. 27, the LeeShore Center and Love, INC. will be providing their normal services all day and asking their clients to participate in the Point in Time count. There will also be volunteers at the food pantry at Soldotna United Methodist Church that day conducting the count. After that, a count will take place at a different food pantry location each day, and anyone who participates in any of these counts will receive a box of food and a backpack full of useful resources — blankets, NarCan kits, feminine hygiene products, shower and laundry vouchers and more — as well as contact information for essential services that can be found in the area. Volunteers at each of the count locations will be wearing masks and socially distancing, Stuart said.

Stuart said that the local food pantries in Soldotna, Nikiski, Kenai, Ninilchik and Sterling were the logical choice to serve as drop-off points for Project Homeless Connect 2021. Over the last several months, the pantries have been providing food directly to many of the same people who would benefit from the services offered during Project Homeless Connect, and each pantry already has a pool of volunteers ready to lend a hand. From October to December, the food pantries distributed weekly food boxes that were provided through CARES Act funds given to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, and during the last week of the food box program each box included a flier with information about Project Homeless Connect as a way to get the word out about the format of this year’s event.

To further ensure that they reach as many people as they can, Stuart said that volunteers would also be going directly to known homeless camps in the area over those two weeks to provide those folks with the same food and essential resources that will be provided at the other locations.

For the past several years, Project Homeless Connect has taken place at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex at the end of January. For one day, dozens of service providers would make themselves available at the sports complex so that peninsula residents experiencing homelessness can receive the assistance they need, whether it’s searching for a job, applying for financial assistance, starting recovery from substance abuse or even just getting a haircut and a massage. The event has put hundreds of people in touch with the services they need over the years: Last year alone 148 people attended the event, and 316 people were impacted by the services provided either directly or through the attendance of family members, according to data from the 2020 Project Homeless Connect event.

In addition to the Point in Time Count, the Kenai Peninsula Continuum of Care collects demographic information during Project Homeless Connect to get a more comprehensive sense of the local homelessness issue. For example, 70% of participants in last year’s Project Homeless Connect reported experiencing some form of substance abuse and/or a developmental, physical or mental disability. About 12% of last year’s participants reported being homeless due to domestic violence, and 20% reported that they were homeless due to a loss of a job.

In her presentation to the Kenai City Council last week about the event, Stuart predicted that the number of people experiencing homelessness due to job loss this time around would be significantly higher, due to the unprecedented increase in unemployment rates during 2020.

Stuart said Wednesday that she saw benefits and downsides to this new approach to Project Homeless Connect. She expects that more people will be impacted, for example, than in previous years because the event is extended over two weeks and involves direct outreach for the first time.

One of the downsides is that it diminishes the opportunities for face-to-face interaction between the people who need help and the people who can provide it. It also limits the amount of involvement that the general public has, because normally everyone in the community is invited to Project Homeless Connect to share a meal with their neighbor, even if they don’t need the services offered there.

The cities of Homer and Seward held a local Project Homeless Connect event for the first time last year, and Stuart said they would be continuing this year in a format similar to what will be taking place on the central peninsula.

Stuart said that Project Homeless Connect has already received ample support from the community and has just about everything needed in terms of volunteers and supplies. People who would like to support the event are encouraged to make a financial donation, which Stuart said will go a long way toward any last-minute purchases or adjustments that have to be made.

For more information about the event or to arrange a donation, call 907-420-4514.

Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

Kenneth Russell and his dog Ichabod, aka “Icky,” pose for the camera 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)

Kenneth Russell and his dog Ichabod, aka “Icky,” pose for the camera 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)

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