For people who experience homelessness, a lack of access to essential services is one of the toughest challenges they face. In a community-led effort to overcome this challenge, the eighth annual Project Homeless Connect will take place on Jan. 23 at the Soldotna Sports Center. This event is organized by the Kenai Peninsula Continuum of Care and run entirely by dedicated volunteers around the peninsula. Every year, Project Homeless Connect consolidates a wide variety of services and supplies into a centralized location so that those in the community who are struggling with homelessness can have convenient access to the care they need.
The services provided are done so through a combination of volunteers and governmental assistance programs.
Maggie Winston with the Soldotna Independent Living Center said the mission of Project Homeless Connect is providing care that focuses on the individual.
“Everyone appreciates a hair cut,” but each person who comes to the event seeking assistance does so with a unique story and a unique set of issues that cannot be properly addressed by a one-size-fits-all approach, Winston said.
While the homeless and near-homeless population on the Kenai Peninsula may not be as visible or noticeable as more populated areas such as Anchorage, it does exist, and only community-driven action will improve the situation, Winston said.
In a presentation given to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Winston outlined the ultimate goal of Project Homeless Connect: transitioning from simply managing homeless to truly ending it. Part of reaching this goal is working with the Borough Assembly and Mayor Charlie Pierce to incorporate Project Homeless Connect into the community’s 10-Year Plan. This form of public and private partnership mobilizes local resources to provide the highest quality of care for the homeless community in the area.
To that end, the possibility of holding similar events in other areas around the Peninsula was discussed at the assembly meeting. Assembly member Kelly Cooper addressed this possibility as well as the issue of actually making it to the event for anyone who is not already located in the Kenai/Soldotna area, “If I was homeless and I was in Homer, even if there was transportation in that community, I would never get there. What can we do about that?”
Winston stated that there are additional offices in Homer, Seward, and Kodiak for Project Homeless Connect, and that potential events in Homer and Kodiak for next year were already in the works.
Another important part of achieving their goal involves collecting relevant data from Project Homeless Connect that are used by local, state, and federal agencies. In 2018, 119 individuals participated in Project Homeless Connect. Of those, 55 percent had experienced drug or alcohol abuse, physical, mental or developmental disabilities, or were positive for HIV/AIDS. Twenty three percent said job loss had been a factor in homelessness, and 8 said domestic violence had been a factor in homelessness. Twelve percent of those who reported being affected by homelessness were U.S. military veterans.
Compiling this data is essential to assessing the scope of the homelessness problem in a particular area and determining the best ways to deal with the issue. For example, last year’s participants reported that the top three services requested but not offered were vision care, dental care, and senior-specific services. As a result, vision and dental care will be provided this year.
The services that are available at Project Homeless Connect are based on the volunteers who sign up. The committee that runs the event works year-round to find people who can provide hair cuts, massages, dental care, and anything else a person struggling with homelessness might require.
As of now, the event has all the volunteers it needs thanks to continued support to the community.
For anyone that would like to donate, materials such as personal hygiene products, hand warmers, and non perishable food items are always in high demand. These can be dropped off at the Independent Living Center at 47255 Princeton Ave in Soldotna or Love, INC at 44410 Kalifornsky Beach Rd.
• By BRIAN MAZUREK, Peninsula Clarion