Homelessness is a difficult problem, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless to solve it. It can be solved, or at least dramatically reduced, when the homeless are given the chance to overcome the administrative barriers that often conspire to keep them on the street.
Helping them surmount these barriers and get the other services they need is the purpose of Project Homeless Connect (PHC), a one-day event designed to help break the cycle of chronic homelessness in the Birmingham area.
PHC, an annual event that began in 2008, will take place Saturday, March 10, at Boutwell Auditorium downtown.
PHC links the homeless, including veterans and families, with housing, medical care and other services.
There are also at least 1,200 volunteers.
In fact, non-profit Hands on Birmingham is still seeking volunteers to serve as Smiling Faces client guides at the event. The Smiling Faces, about 700 of them, are paired with clients to help them register and find what they need on the auditorium floor.
According to Allison Einsiedel of Hands on Birmingham, the Smiling Faces do more than serve as guides. “It’s about getting our clients to feel comfortable and at ease, because it is such a big area and can be overwhelming,” she said.
The PHC gives the homeless the chance to get the help they need from a system that can be difficult to navigate, especially for people who have little access to transportation.
“These social services would often take them months to receive, and this one-day event, where everything is there in their capacity, really helps,” Einsiedel said. “They only have to go to one location.”
Many homeless people at PHC take advantage of the opportunity to get new birth certificates or new IDs. The IDs are processed on site by volunteers from the Alabama Department of Public Safety.
These documents can be the difference in allowing a person to work their way out of homelessness, said Michelle Farley, executive director of the non-profit One Roof. “With a birth certificate and an ID, I can get somebody off the street,” Farley told Weld Local. “You can’t even apply for a job without [them], and that has gotten worse with HB56.”
Farley said one of her main worries was raising money to pay for those IDs and birth certificates.
In addition to money to pay for IDs, Farley said that One Roof needs donations to help cover the cost of medications dispensed to clients by the doctors who volunteer at PHC.
“We work with a couple of the chain Publix [stores],” she said. “They provide some of the antibiotics for free. But not everybody needs antibiotics. They need other things.”
She is also hoping for nice weather for the event, since PHC will likely have a line of people down the street waiting to get registered and enter Boutwell. “And I am concerned about our clients, because they will stand out there,” Farley said. “It is that important to them. We had a client walk from Trussville. We’ve had people walk from Bessemer.”
Numerous local businesses and organizations contribute to PHC, according to Farley. Schaeffer Eye Center will do vision screenings and donate eyeglasses. Starbucks will provide coffee and do some hiring. And cosmetology students from Lawson State Community College will cut clients’ hair, do basic nail care and offer facials.
“I don’t know about you, but a haircut makes me feel much better,” Farley said. “Our homeless people can’t call up their barber. They can’t call up their hairdresser. It’s about a tiny little bit of pampering.”
About 800 homeless people took part in PHC in 2011, and a similar number are expected this year, according to Farley.
Birmingham has a total homeless population of about 1,950 on any given night, according to Farley . “That’s street homeless, in transition housing and in shelters,” she said. “That number is down even in this worldwide recession. Our number is down from 2009 to 2011. And our street homeless number is down 13 percent.”
Farley attributes this decrease in part to PHC. “It’s about the development of permanent supportive housing, and PHC has played a part in that,” she said, adding, “We feel very strongly that the structural changes that happen with PHC has facilitated that reduction in numbers.”
PHC does more than just help the homeless themselves, according to Farley. “This is two-fold,” she said. “It is a project to connect our homeless to the services they need to get out of homelessness, but [it’s also] about connecting the community with homelessness.”
This happens through the emotional impact of the event on the volunteers, according to Farley. “[The volunteers] understand that there is truly a small difference between them and the clients,” she said. “Last year, a young lady helped a very challenging client. She called her mom crying. She told her mom, ‘I was an ungrateful child. I had everything, and I never appreciated it.’”
Most volunteers who help out at PHC are anxious to return to the event the following year. “This is only my second year, but every time I talk to one of our volunteers who volunteer for all our days of service, they say this is one of their favorites,” Einsiedel said. “A lot of people don’t have a lot of contact with the homeless, so when they sit down with someone, they are grateful for what they have in life, and it makes them want to do more. It’s a very powerful experience.”
These breakthroughs in understanding on the part of the non-homeless are important, according to Farley. “I can beg all the day long,” she said. “You can write stories all day long, but we need people to know that homelessness is not about laziness or not being able to do better but [about] needing a little bit of help to get over the structural barriers.”
To volunteer as a Smiling Faces Client, sign up at www.handsonbirmingham.org.
To learn more about One Roof or make a donation, call (205) 254-8833 or go to www.oneroofonline.org.
Jesse Chambers is the editor of Weld Local and a contributing editor at Weld for Birmingham. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.