Volunteers guided participants around an open room Wednesday at the Kenai Merit Inn. They had identified the participants’ high-need areas and directed them along to the appropriate services.
The participants were the Central Peninsula’s homeless, a mostly unseen segment of the area’s population. Their involvement in the second annual Project Homeless Connect came from necessity rather than desire. The appreciation throughout the event felt palpable, however.
“I heard they’d be having a lot of free services, and I could really use the assistance,” said Charity Ludvick, who is currently living at Merit Inn. “We applied for Alaska Housing today, which is awesome. It could really help.”
Ludvick previously lived three miles north of Wildwood Correctional Complex, outside Kenai’s city limits. Her landlord incrementally raised rent despite a black mold problem at the house. Then, she became pregnant, so getting away from the health hazard became all the more important. If it wasn’t for Merit Inn, she doesn’t know what she would’ve done.
Her story is familiar to those on the cusp of homelessness — their options are few, but their needs are many. The Kenai’s full-fledged homeless may have it much worse. The Peninsula Continuum of Care and People Promoting Wellness — a group of concerned agencies and local businesses — hosted Wednesday’s event. Agencies offered resources for housing, social security and employment. The organizers are confident in the event’s staying power, and they are pursuing larger goals like forming an accurate picture of what it means to be homeless in the area.
Project Homeless Connect is a national initiative to provide resources to the nation’s needy. Some communities hold the event twice a year, said People Promoting Wellness facilitator Regina Theisen. There’s a core group of individuals all too familiar with the issue; the goal is getting the general public to recognize it as well, she said.
“It isn’t a person on the street corner,” Theisen said. “It’s people who are couch surfing. It’s people who are living in their cars. And I’ve heard there are some camps. We’re trying to put a face on homelessness.”
A homeless action committee, which helped organize the event, has had difficulty reaching the homeless population, she said.
The committee meets once a month to strategize, said Kenaitze Indian Tribe employee and event volunteer Amber Delago. It meets once a week as the yearly event approaches.
Participating in the event is important to the tribe, said Kenaitze Social Services specialist Laurie VanBuskirk. The tribe works with many families on the Peninsula; it too has seen families struggle with impending homelessness, she said.
“We recognize the need in the community, not just to educate each other but also to take care of one another,” VanBuskirk said. “We ... want to see families as healthy as possible, not just within the tribe but the whole Peninsula.”
Last year, 75 individuals participated in the event. But those people are connected to children and families, so the total number of those struggling with housing is much larger, Theisen said.
Theisen and Lori Engler, the co-facilitator of People Promoting Wellness and an employee at the Kenai Peninsula Independent Living Center, said they’d like to find a leader for the committee.
“Someone who’d take on a leadership role to organize this event. This year, everyone shared the effort, which is nice but there are other goals we should be chasing,” Engler said inside The Way Café, behind the Merit Inn.
Back in the main room, Ludvick was visiting the event’s multiple booths, including those in a separate room for health care. Volunteers checked her eyes, and her husband Laja Timmons had blood sugar and blood pressure screenings done.
The event showcased the wide variety of services available within the community. It’s a one-stop-shop for services, Delago said.
Hairdressers from Signatures Hair Salon in Soldotna, situated in the corner of the room with steel chairs resting atop colorful tarps, cut people’s hair. Signatures employee Tina Nix said a hair cut helps with confidence, and the first step to overcoming problems is recognizing self-worth.
“I was kind of pampering myself, getting my haircut and having my eyes checked,” Ludvick said with a smile. “Just taking advantage of all the help they’re offering.”
The Merit Inn, managed by Love INC of the Kenai Peninsula, provided shelter for 207 individuals in 2012, 95 of whom were younger than 18. A total of 73 families stayed for an average of 271 days, said Love INC Executive Director Leslie Rohr via email.