Project Homeless Connect volunteers make a big difference

On Monday, Dec. 13, after one of the biggest snowfalls in Minnesota history, nearly 1,000 volunteers from faith communities, corporations and neighborhoods braved the weather to assist 2,000 people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.  

This was our community’s 10th Project Homeless Connect event. Of all of the things I get to be a part of in my job, these Project Homeless Connect days are some of the most uplifting and hopeful moments for me.  

Two times a year, this community comes together at the Minneapolis Convention Center to literally transform 160,000 square feet into a one-stop-shop service center. It is simultaneously an urgent care, dental office, eye care office, barber shop, law firm, county service center, social security office, gourmet soup kitchen, job training center, veterans service center, housing assistance office, and more.   All of this is provided by more than 400 providers that donate their time and expertise, including more than 20 dentists, 30 barbers and stylists, and 70-plus lawyers, judges and paralegals.  

As each guest comes in they are welcomed by a volunteer who asks them what they need to prevent or end their homelessness. It may be a state ID so they can apply for work, help obtaining their Social Security benefits, assistance with a nagging legal issue, desperately needed health or dental care, help finding a job or housing they can afford. Whatever it is, these volunteers help navigate the services at the Convention Center and, in many cases, achieve remarkable results in minutes or hours that would normally take months or years.  

At one event, a man with mental health issues who had been homeless for many years met with a housing provider who said that they could get him into an apartment, but first he needed to get an evaluation from a mental health professional. Instead of having to make an appointment, figure out transportation and hopefully get back to the housing provider before the unit was filled, he was able to walk down the hall at the Convention Center to get the evaluation he needed. He moved into his new apartment that day. Or, there is the family that was about to be evicted from their apartment before Christmas.  

With help from providers, the family was able to work out a payment plan with the landlord, dental care for their children, employment assistance and get a lead on a few Christmas gifts.

Not only has Project Homeless Connect helped us better coordinate services twice a year, but these events have taught us a lot about what we can be doing every day to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our work. I am happy to report that, by the end of January,  we will have two new “Opportunity Centers” up and running that will work much like Project Homeless Connect, but on a daily basis. Like Project Homeless Connect, these centers will co-locate multiple services in one easy-to-access location. I believe this will transform the way we do our work.

It takes a community to make Project Homeless Connect what it is. Our next event is Monday, May 23, 2011.  Please consider joining us.

All it takes is 90 minutes of training and a big heart. Go to homelessconnectminneapolis.org to find out more.  

Cathy ten Broeke, coordinator on homelessness for Minneapolis and Hennepin County, can be reached at cathy.ten.broeke@co.hennepin.mn.us.