Second annual Project Homeless Connect builds community connections and provides services for local homeless
Lin Colavin lights up when she talks about volunteering with Project Homeless Connect. An energetic grandmother of three and soup kitchen volunteer who’s lived in Santa Cruz for 37 years, Colavin doesn’t lack human connection. Yet the interactions she had at last year’s event inspired her to get more involved this year. “My experience was one of meeting people that I would’ve never had the opportunity to meet,” she recalls. “I came away feeling so enriched.”
Colavin is one of 400 volunteers who joined 43 service providers in March 2010 to produce Project Homeless Connect (PHC), a day of free services and networking for 1,200 homeless people—one-fourth of the estimated homeless population in Santa Cruz based on figures from the annual Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey. This year, spearheaded by a seven-member volunteer steering committee, the second annual event will take place at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Tuesday, March 22.
“PHC is completely reliant on volunteers,” explains Samantha Green, an analyst with Applied Survey Research and event organizer. “One of the coolest jobs is the check-in process.” At check-in, volunteers greet each homeless client, review available services, and check off what the client needs.
Clients may then be paired up with a volunteer advocate who guides them to service booths. As an advocate, Colavin assisted three people last year. “The first man was in his fifties; he had grown up off of 41st Avenue. He wanted phone cards and a voice mail because he was looking for a job. While we were in line, we had this incredible conversation about his memories of Santa Cruz. That was a gift for me. It was a piece of his life that was part of history.”
Colavin’s experience was just what the event’s organizers hoped for. “Our primary goal is to make sure it’s a community-wide event, connecting the community and providing services at the same time,” Green says.
PHC began in San Francisco in 2004, when former mayor Gavin Newsome asked county employees to build better services for the homeless. Santa Cruz is now one of 220 cities in three nations that provide a one-day cornucopia of services. The federal Interagency Council on Homelessness has declared PHC a national best practice model.
Maggie McKay, who worked in Santa Cruz mental health services for 27 years, is coordinating service providers. “We have a Section Eight housing advocate, career counseling, and bike repair,” she says, reading from a long list. “A doctor, a chiropractor, dental assistants, eight RNs. And they’re all lovely people.”
The one-stop shop model is key to the event’s success. For homeless people, “it’s not easy to get all these different resources,” says Megan Carlson of the Homeless Services Center. “You have to have money to get on the bus. The Homeless Services Center doesn’t provide money for transportation.” At PHC, someone can set up a post office box, get a haircut, write a resume, apply for jobs, and get a state ID card (required for staying at a shelter).
“It’s a jump start for people’s lives,” explains Kymberly Lacrosse of the Santa Cruz County United Way. “It has a lasting impact.” Last year’s impacts were notable: 1,440 meals were served; 938 phone cards were given out; 105 people left with ID cards; and 165 received employment services.
“I went in there with no ID, no Social Security card, not even a phone number,” a homeless man shares in an interview posted on the PHC website, phc-santacruz.org. “I came out with an identity.” He found a job that day; four other people did, too.
However, PHC has also met some opposition. McKay heard one person say, “Homeless connect—like, to connect them to the Greyhound bus to drive them out of town?” She admits, “While it’s true that there can be some problematic and entitled homeless people—[like] in any population, house or unhoused—there is the full spectrum of personalities and circumstances ... This brings everyone together.”
Colavin says her volunteer work “dissolved a barrier for me.” She looks forward to helping at PHC’s story booth, where the stories of homeless people will be recorded and posted on a website. Often unheard, their voices may reflect a new perspective about our community. “Everyone has a story,” she says. “If we feel safe, we tell our story. If this year’s event is like last year’s, it will be a really safe and nurturing place for everybody.”