Homeless get help, but record numbers indicative of community crisis
Chico’s first Project Homeless Connect event in April 2012 connected about 480 homeless individuals with services ranging from haircuts to HIV testing to housing opportunities. The latest such event, held April 27, topped that number within its first 90 minutes, and went on to serve a total of 675 people in need.
For coordinator Sherisse Allen, the primary organizer behind an event that required the cooperation of hundreds of volunteers from dozens of organizations, helping that many of Butte County’s most impoverished residents means Project Homeless Connect was a success, albeit a bittersweet one.
“I’m a bit torn,” Allen said via phone interview a few days after the event. “I’m happy we were able to support so many people, and the environment there was great.
“But the reality is that there there were 675 people in dire need of help,” she added. “It’s very humbling as a service provider, and a reminder that our job is as big today as it was the week before the event. It drives the fact home that there is so much left to be done.”
Project Homeless Connect began in San Francisco in 2004 and has since spread to more than 200 cities across the country. The philosophy behind the event is to deliver myriad services that benefit a traditionally hard-to-serve population at one time and in one place. “It’s not a fair where people go booth to booth collecting information about available services; it’s about providing those services on the spot,” Allen told the CN&R before the event (See “All hands on deck,” Newslines, April 21).
Allen, and many of the other providers and clients on-site that day, said that holding similar events on a more regular basis is an essential component in combating homelessness locally. Project Homeless Connect has been held only twice in Butte County, and Allen would like to see it become an annual event, as it is in Sacramento and several Bay Area communities. She said the lapse was largely because no single entity has yet committed to funding a recurring event. This year, it was initiated by the Butte Countywide Homeless Continuum of Care and the financial considerations (hiring a coordinator, etc.) were covered by the county’s Housing Authority.
“There would actually be huge cost savings if it becomes an annual event,” Allen said. “We wouldn’t have to re-create the processes and figure out who to coordinate with to provide all of the services. If those parts become routine, then it would be much smoother to organize.”
Visitors to the fairgrounds for Project Homeless Connect were greeted by volunteers and given a “passport” to check-mark all of the services they were interested in. More volunteers directed them to areas dedicated to those services. Showers, haircuts and other grooming options were available near the grandstands, while the majority of other services—those offering free cellphones, veterans’ services, employment and housing opportunities—were set up in the commercial building. In between, animal companions could get shots and veterinary check-ups and Sensible Cyclery provided free bike repairs. Other areas were dedicated to medical care, child care and providing meals.
As organizers had projected, the most in-demand service was free state ID cards provided by the DMV. Allen said she hopes the county Clerk-Recorder’s Office might be involved next time to help those born in Butte County to get birth certificates, the lack of which prevented some from obtaining ID cards.
Despite the hard realities faced daily by many of those who attended, the atmosphere was lively and positive—there was even a DJ playing music in the main hall. Most of those who came seeking services were more eager to discuss the help they’d received that day than where they might sleep that night.
During the interview following the event, Allen teared up recollecting her favorite moments of the day.
“It was just so moving seeing people with so much helping people with so little,” she said. “The event will really be successful when we don’t need to do it anymore.”