Helping hands, all in one hall

Project Homeless Connect offers Juneauites a chance to meet and help the city's less fortunate

Posted: Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Centennial Hall seemed like a good, welcoming spot for Michael Johnson on Monday afternoon. He walked in, met with several friends and found some information he said he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire
MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire

Johnson has lived in Juneau more than 33 years, the last five of which have been at St. Vincent de Paul. That’s why his friends recommended he find out what was going on Monday at Juneau’s second annual Project Homeless Connect.

The event was a chance to gather service providers from all different areas into one place where they could reach out to those who need them most. Johnson and several others spent hours finding out about services.

Some of these, to name a few, include Gastineau Human Services to help with transitional housing, Southeast Alaska Independent Living to aid the disabled and Rainforest Recovery Center to help with substance abuse recovery. Other vendors included the Department of Labor, Juneau Family Birth Center, Polaris House, Gastineau Humane Society and the Violent Crimes Compensation Board among many others. Services ranged from rental assistance to dental screenings to massages to immunizations. Juneau Homeless Coalition Co-Chair Scott Ciambor, who is also the affordable housing coordinator for the Juneau Economic Development Council, said there were around 50 vendors in all.

“I think this is a fantastic event for the community and something we’re going to do every year and make stronger. It’s made a lot of happy people in the building today,” he said. “I want to emphasize homelessness is a community issue and the only solution is to involve everyone.”

There was an emphasis on medical treatment, with Bartlett Regional Hospital, Front Street Clinic, the Juneau Public Health Center and others providing HIV tests, blood screenings, glucose tests and behavioral screenings. A physician was there to answer questions. Ciambor said 47 immunizations were given for H1N1, tetanus and pneumonia.

Rental assistance was a popular booth, with many on the verge of losing their homes and looking for preventative measures. Ciambor said this emphasizes there’s a need here for housing. He said the police department’s crisis specialist was another big hit, with 103 visitors.

“I did eight screenings and every one was a veteran or victim of domestic violence,” he said.

Ciambor and the other Juneau Homeless Coalition Co-Chair, AWARE District Service Manger Mandy Cole, said the other thing that stood out this year was the number of high school and college-age kids, many already with their own children. They said the coalition has been very engaged in the school district this year because they’re aware of the problem. The school district and Juneau Youth Services were also there Monday.

Michelle Sobel, a social service provider with Department of Veterans Affairs, represented the VA and the new VA Outreach Clinic in the Federal Building. She said at least 40 people who came through were veterans or friends or families of veterans.

Sobel was there to provide information about many problems ailing homeless veterans, including depression, and provide information about suicide prevention.

“It’s a concern in the VA system. Any loss is terrible, and it’s considered a big enough problem,” she said.

Among the VA services was care for those qualified from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Representatives of the Alaska Permanent Fund Division were also on hand. Supervisor Heather Paige said 80 people came by its booth.

She said the law changed last year so a physical address is now required along with a mailing address for a PFD, which can present problems here. She cited an example she got of one person living “under a bridge.” She also gets many post office boxes listed. She said the division works with the homeless in such cases to use a post office box or friend’s address. Many also opt for direct deposit.

Paige said those wanting help before the March 11 filing date can go to the 11th floor of the State Office Building.

One of the most popular parts of Juneau Homeless Connect was a place for the patrons to indulge in something that most others take for granted. Four hairstylists from 1st Impressions Hair Salon and one from Alaskan Barbershop set up a hair-cutting station next door in the Zach Gordon Youth Center.

Ciambor said four of them gave around 55 haircuts with requests still coming in. He said this event proved very popular last year as well. He and Cole said one reason for this is it feels like a luxury to many of the homeless. While places like AWARE provide food and shelter, haircuts are something the homeless often have even less access to.

Ciambor said it’s also a good reminder of the variety of ways people can help, saying, “That’s the whole spirit of this event. These people are part of the community.”

Hairstylist Brendan Sullivan agrees, saying he and the others enjoy this work and see it as a good way to extend this to the needy, adding it helps the homeless feel better about themselves and can’t hurt in job-hunting.

Deb McGehee of Alaskan Barbershop described it as a way to give back to the community in the best way she knows how.

One of their patrons was Matthew Durham, who greatly appreciated his cut, saying many people at the event can’t afford $30 or $40 haircuts regularly.

“First impressions last. As competitive as it is in the job market, look clean-cut. It’s really an awesome thing that they’re doing for people who can’t afford to get a $30 haircut.”

Ciambor said the preliminary count of attendees was 162. The final tally will be used along with surveys from other agencies, like hospitals and AWARE, to generate a homeless count for the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.’s Point-in-Time Count. This will be used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help determine levels of program funding in the future.

The turnout was high and on par with last year’s event. The St. Vincent de Paul booth had a line of seven at one point.

This wasn’t all seriousness. Food was also served inside. The event was a chance for people to relax and enjoy themselves, which many homeless people don’t often get.

Johnson was so encouraged after getting help from the Social Security booth and getting some new clothes he felt like spreading the joy.

“It was fun to say ‘hi’ to all the booths, cheer them up, make them smile,” he said.

“Based on the experience in this building, it’s not anything the community should be afraid of either,” Cole about homelessness.

Project Homeless Connect is sponsored by the Juneau Homeless Coalition and the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or

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