For the first time in nearly two years the former Sears store in the Kenai Mall will be active with people receiving much needed services, but only for one day.
The third annual Project Homeless Connect takes place today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. More than 50 volunteers will be on hand offering multiple free services from haircuts, health care services and housing information.
Project coordinator Marti Slater said the outpouring of donations from the community leading up to the event has been amazing.
“For the last three years this has been an incredible community based event to reach out to homeless and those at risk,” she said. “It makes me cry. My heart bursts because it has been so positive.”
Project Homeless Connect is a national initiative to provide resources to the nation’s needy. Slater, who is a retired pastor from Kenai Methodist Church, said last summer she went to Anchorage and saw how they organized their event and she came back so inspired to continue to help those in need.
Slater said 25 vendors will be on hand and many other agencies have come together to make the event possible. Volunteers have also donated groceries from the food bank and winter clothing.
A couple ladies volunteered to cut hair, massage therapists will be on hand for 10-minute shoulder rubs, there will be childcare and Alaska Housing Finance will have a booth to provide information on housing assistance, she said. Arby’s, Odie’s Deli and Don Jose’s will provide lunch.
In addition, health care services will also be available. Hospital volunteers will offer vision screenings, flu shots, blood-pressure checks, medical and dental referrals and disability resources, she said.
Booths with information on the Affordable Care Act, veteran assistance, food stamps and social security will serve those who need public assistance.
Slater said everyone that attends will go through an intake process which will compile statistics for the state concerning homelessness. Participants will also turn in an evaluation and in return will receive a bag of food and personal items to take with them, she said.
“We work ourselves to the bone to make this happen and maybe only five people come,” she said. “If only five people show and they leave better off then when they came in, it’s successful.”
The first two years the project had been held at the Merit Inn, which served as a transitional housing center operated by Love INC until it closed last summer, Slater said.
The Kenai Mall is a large space with plenty of parking in a great location, she said. Although Love INC ran out of funding to house people at the Merit Inn, the organization is still involved with the homeless project, she said.
Love INC rented the building from Carr-Gottstein Properties for $500 and paid another $250 for liability insurance, Slater said. The project has received more than $2,000 in donations.
Slater said she has made arrangements with Alaska Cab to pick up people at three locations and take them to the event. Volunteers will be at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna, Kenai Peninsula Church on Kalifornsky beach and the old Nikiski Senior Center to call a cab to take them to the event for free.
Volunteer Heather Morning said homelessness is a big problem that needs to be addressed in the Kenai Peninsula. She attended a City of Kenai Planning and Zoning Commission work session on Jan. 8 about transitional housing and voiced her opinion that it is the city’s responsibility to aid displaced families.
“Homelessness can happen to anyone of us at anytime,” she said. “It isn’t just substance abuse it could be our own children.”
Kenai council member Tim Navarre, who is liaison for the planning and zoning commission, said he would like to see a homeless shelter in Kenai similar to the Salvation Army shelter in Anchorage. For that to happen the city will need to find the right place and the right mix, he said.
“The city is not trying to ignore the homeless,” he said. “We need a permanent structure with a set number of units to meet the need. I am a proponent for this to work in our community.”
Slater said it is unfortunate that there are homeless people in the central peninsula and the only homeless shelter here Friendship Mission near Wildwood, is for men only.
Most people are two paychecks away from “a significant change in their lifestyle,” and once someone is displaced it is hard to get back, she said.
“I don’t believe we will ever totally eradicate homelessness,” she said. “If we can help people find housing for those to get off the street it can make a huge difference.”
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.