Organizers of this year’s Project Homeless Connect began recruiting volunteers with the first ever kickoff meeting for the event, held Thursday evening at the Soldotna Public Library.
Project Homeless Connect pairs homeless or near-homeless community members with the materials and services they need to better their situations, and will return for the fifth year in a row on January 28.
Those in charge of putting it together decided to get a jump start on its organization by holding Thursday’s informational meeting to gauge public interest, said LeeShore Executive Director Cheri Smith.
Smith is also involved with the Kenai Peninsula Continuum of Care, the parent organization that puts on Project Homeless Connection. Last year, the project drew 89 participants — a record number for the event — from various backgrounds and situations, all of whom were connected with vendors offering everything from haircuts and clothing to housing services and employment advice.
“Our goal… is really to help organize and finance and strategically plan to meet the needs of those people who are at risk of becoming homeless or (are) homeless in our community,” Smith said. “The purpose is really to reduce the incidences of homeless and really help people achieve self sufficiency.”
Community members listened to an informative presentation about Project Homeless Connect and its mission before posing questions to Smith and other organizers. At the end of the meeting, residents signed up for volunteer positions. United Way Executive Director Lisa Roberts said volunteers can contribute as much or as little as they like to the event.
Project Homeless Connect is comprised of multiple committees, including donations, fundraising, transportation, vendors and more. Organizers at Thursday’s meeting sought to educate interested residents about the different roles they could serve and entice them to get involved, whether it be donating clothes or volunteering to work the event itself.
“We would just welcome anything anyone would be willing to donate or help us out with,” Roberts said. “It’s a difficult age and it’s a difficult time that we live in”
During January’s event, homeless or near-homeless community members will meet with intake volunteers, who will go through all their needs with them. Volunteers will identify participants’ top three needs that Project Homeless Connect will address that day, and will direct them to the vendors who can help.
Last year’s event hosted 27 vendors, which ranged from nonprofits to individuals and included the LeeShore Center, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, the Kenai Peninsula College and more. The vendors represent a variety of services directed at addressing a wide array of needs. An analysis of last year’s Project Homeless Connect shows 9 percent of the people who sought help at the event were veterans, 15 percent were fleeing domestic violence, 18 percent were part of a Native corporation and 18 percent were between the ages of 18-24. Smith said addressing the number of homeless youth is especially important, as young people aging out of foster care programs are at risk for falling through the gaps in services.
“We have a huge homeless youth problem in our community,” Smith said. “There’s pockets of populations, what we call undeserved populations. We certainly don’t have emergency shelter housing specifically for men, and we don’t have any of those services for youth.”
Leslie Rohr, executive director of Love Inc., said the goals of Project Homeless Connect will be met if the event both serves as a one-stop option for providing essential services and works to empower the people who need them.
“They aren’t just… always sitting on the corner with the sign. You don’t know what the history is behind that sign,” Rohr said. “Until you sit down and talk to someone, you don’t really know or understand the issue of homelessness.”
The next meeting to prepare for Project Homeless Connect will be held at noon on Sept. 15 at the LeeShore Center in Kenai.