On Wednesday, Project Homeless Connect provided much needed services and supplies to the Peninsula community. Once a year, a coalition of organizations including the Independent Living Center, Love, INC, the Lions Club and many others come together for this all-day event.
During the event, people in the area who struggle with homelessness or financial insecurity could get a hot meal, stock up on non-perishable food or other supplies, get in touch with various counseling and housing services, and even get a fresh hair cut — all free of charge and in one centralized location.
The idea for Project Homeless Connect was first implemented in San Francisco and has since spread to communities across the country. Currently, there are Project Homeless Connect events in Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks and Kenai/Soldotna, and this year representatives from Kodiak and Homer attended with the hopes of organizing similar events in their communities.
Maggie Winston with the Soldotna Independent Living Center said that the event is the result of year-round planning, research and volunteer coordination. This kind of foresight is what enables Project Homeless Connect to have the biggest impact possible for the people who need it, because it allows for plenty of time to determine what people will need and who in the community is able to provide the necessary services.
One woman, Bonnie, who did not wish to give her last name, was taking part in the event for the second year in a row. Bonnie sat with her friends for lunch and discussed the areas where the event could improve.
Her only suggestion: “I wish they did it more often.”
She went on to explain that she had grabbed extra diapers and baby wipes to give to her neighbor, who was unable to make it to the event. Many people were collecting food, clothing and other essentials for their friends who could not be there. Despite everyone having their own struggles, it was clear that the people in the homeless community do whatever they can to support each other.
Every person who attended had a different story to tell. One man lost his son to cancer and has recently struggled to find a job, even though he served in the military for eight years working on marine vessels. Another man talked about his parents moving out of state years ago and leaving him behind.
“Mom bought me a tent and a generator and said, ‘Have a nice life,’” he recalled.
When people come to Project Homeless Connect looking for services, they are asked a few questions regarding what their biggest needs are. Then they are paired up with a volunteer companion who guides them through the event and points them in the right direction. Most people had the same two issues at the top of their list: stable housing and jobs. One couple, Jacob and Savannah, had just moved down from Anchorage and were in the process of finding stable housing.
Jacob was dealing with mental health issues and had a felony conviction that impeded his job prospects. Savannah dealt with a host of health problems as well as an unfinalized divorce that left her unable to receive financial assistance for her children.
Despite their hardships, the couple maintained positive attitudes and had hope that events like Project Homeless Connect would help them get back on their feet. Jacob said that he had struggled on and off with homelessness most of his life. He grew up in Chicago and watched his parents get killed at a young age. His story included sexual abuse, exploitation and financial instability.
“I don’t want to be another statistic,” said Jacob as he talked about his plans for the future. “People are gonna naysay you until you prove them wrong.”
Many of the volunteers for the event had experienced homelessness or drug addiction themselves at some point. Having this perspective often made it easier for clients to connect with and open up to the volunteers.
“When you can look someone in the eye and say ‘I know exactly what you’re going through.’ It can make all the difference,” said one volunteer with Change 4 the Kenai, a nonprofit committed to combating opioid addiction on the peninsula.
The event also provided a yearly opportunity to collect important data regarding the homelessness issue. This data is used to assess trends and identify the biggest factors for homelessness in a given area. The data collection from Project Homeless Connect ensures that all the organizations involved can be as effective as possible in not just addressing homelessness, but ending it for good.
• By BRIAN MAZUREK, Peninsula Clarion