Help for the homeless
Free services offered to Butte’s indigent
A conversation with Richard Muenzer at a recent homeless-services event drove home the importance of getting aid to this marginalized population.
“These services are desperately needed,” said Muenzer, who was about to get a hair cut he felt was vital for job interviews. “My friend just went to the medical booth and found out he has HIV.”
Though the news was tragic, Muenzer said it was fortunate that his friend found out before the virus could progress further.
Muenzer was among the 480 homeless men, women and children at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds last Wednesday (April 18) for Project Homeless Connect, which set up 57 booths offering free services for medical, dental, housing, child-care, mental-health and veterans’ assistance.
The poor arrived by foot, bike, car or a bus that transported them from pick-up spots located at churches in Chico, Oroville, Paradise, Gridley and Biggs. Even their dogs and cats received vaccinations and grooming. More than 100 volunteers helped put on the event, a one-day extravaganza organized by the Butte County Homeless Continuum of Care (COC), a collaborative body for the homeless.
According to its website, Project Homeless Connect was launched by the San Francisco Department of Public Health in 2004 as a way to bring basic services to the homeless. Conventional methods of delivery don’t reach the dispossessed.
The program has expanded to more than 200 communities across the nation, said COC coordinator Meagan Meloy. Notice of this first Chico offering of services had spread through word of mouth since plans for the project began last November.
“It would take each person months to get all these amazing services by themselves,” said Meloy, who teaches public administration at Chico State. “Additionally, many people feel uncomfortable going to some of them on their own, so this made it far easier.”
The COC conducts the annual Butte County homeless census and has tentative plans to alternate between that and Project Homeless Connect every other year, she said. Not surprisingly, many who attended said they would like to see the event take place at least twice a year.
According to the latest census data available, in January 2011 some 1,912 individuals were reported as homeless. Of those, 12 percent said they have children, 30 percent said they were living outdoors and 60 percent said they had lived in Butte County for at least five years. Reflecting the national trend, a majority, 62 percent, are male and 13 percent report having served in the military.
The homeless who attended the fairgrounds event signed in at the entrance to the commercial building and shared their needs and interests. Once registered, participants were given a color-coded map of the booths by category and were shown around by guides.
Some services were offered up front so participants could explore the offerings with less hindrance: Those with young children could leave them with the child-care service; pets could be handed over to Butte County Animal Control volunteers for shots and/or grooming; and those with bicycle problems could drop their rides off at a fix-it booth located just in front of the entrance.
The atmosphere was jovial, considering the circumstances; a DJ from KZFR played pop and rock music in an open area where hot lunches were served. The main dishes were rigatoni, meat loaf and mashed potatoes. Water, sodas, side dishes and snacks also were offered.
One of the most popular booths was that of the Department of Motor Vehicles, which issued California photo IDs and driver’s licenses to those who qualified. On-site computers were patched into state systems, allowing for the necessary record checks and entries.
“They like it here because the atmosphere at the regular DMV is often so intimidating to many,” Meloy said. “The driver’s licenses and photo IDs are vital for basic things like getting a job or even being admitted to homeless shelters.”
The Jesus Center’s Free Store booth offered clothes, brand-new embroidered baseball caps, sandals and rain ponchos.
“Most of this stuff went fast, and people were very grateful for it,” said Free Store volunteer Brittany Sanford, who also volunteers at the Sabbath House Women’s Shelter.
One recipient, Mellissa Kirk, was appreciative of the clothes and the meals for her two children. “The best service will be the haircut, which would normally cost me $20,” Kirk said.
Kirk said she was happy to be able to pass on the generosity by helping a hearing-impaired couple. “I gave them directions to different booths, ordered their meal and interpreted their needs to several helpers,” she said.
The pet area was appreciated mostly by dog owners. The 2010 survey reported that 24 percent of the Butte County homeless have pets. Linda Haller, program manager for Butte County Animal Control, said she was pleased by the turnout of approximately 35 dogs.
Tracy Crippen brought along Roland, his 100-plus-pound rottweiler, who was on the receiving end of a toenail clipping, a dog brush, a food bowl, dog shampoo and three months of flea repellant. Roland was also given seven vaccinations for diseases like rabies, parvo and distemper.
“I’m always worried about Roland because I live in the hills near Whiskey Flats, and if he ever got picked up by the pound I might not get him back since I can’t afford the shots,” Crippen said. “That dog is like my own kid.”