Iraq war veteran Phillip Patch has a lot more empathy for homeless people now that he's one of them.
"I understand better now," he said.
Patch, 32, has had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life after leaving the U.S. Army roughly 2½ years ago following 10 years of service. War veterans have a different state of mind than the average civilian, he said.
"We came back different people. We don't see these people (civilians) the same as us. It's not their fault and it's not our fault. It's just the way it is," he said. "You go in the service ... you integrate and when you come back out you don't know exactly how you fit in with the outside world."
Patch was one of dozens of people looking for social services Monday at the 2010 Project Homeless Connect at Centennial Hall. The event was organized by the Juneau Homeless Coalition as a way to estimate the number of homeless people in the capital, while at the same time providing essential services for some of the community's most vulnerable citizens, co-chair Gail Tharpe-Lucero said.
Part of the coalition's goal of the event was to help alleviate the stigma associated with homelessness in the community, she said.
"I would urge people to educate themselves and realize that there is a very large spectrum of why people are homeless," Tharpe-Lucero said.
Patch doesn't see himself as your average homeless person. He is the father of two young boys, ages 5 and 1. He was dressed Monday like your average 32-year-old Juneau man, wearing a fleece shirt and blue jeans, with a shaved head and a tightly cropped goatee.
Patch has been homeless over the past nine months after coming back to Juneau about a year ago, bouncing from couch to coach or staying at the Glory Hole shelter.
"In this kind of situation, it doesn't really upset me. Life always gets better, it doesn't get worse," he said. "With the economy, it's just hard to get a good job around here. In the winter time it's probably even worse."
Patch said he has a rocky relationship with his family in town and had a run-in with the law, both of which have made finding stability more difficult. He said he maintains a good relationship with his ex, but he doesn't get to see his two kids very often. His boys are "the pride and joy of my life."
"I try not to let them see me in this condition," Patch said. "I don't want them to see their father homeless and all that."
Patch said he was looking for a variety of services at the event Monday. He was looking for employment opportunities in computer technology, housing options and any mental health services available for veterans.
"Since I'm jobless at the moment, I also don't have any insurance," Patch said. "I don't like what I call myself, 'freeloading.' I'd like to get on my feet as fast as possible. So the less I use of the tax payers' money, the better."
Paul Watkins, 23, was at the event Monday mainly looking for better housing options. He arrived in Juneau in September and has been mainly staying at the Thane Campground, except for when it gets too cold.
Watkins left Arkansas over the summer with just a rucksack and some money and eventually ended up in Juneau, but found himself homeless in the midst of winter.
"This is where the money got me," he said. "I didn't know what season I would be here, and I didn't know how bad the winters were. I knew they were going to be pretty tough and I have gear to compensate me for it, but it is getting colder than what I thought. But I'm probably going to stay here for quite awhile."
Watkins said he was amazed to see the amount of services and the compassion that was offered during the event Monday. He said he got some information on transitional housing that he plans to follow up on in order to have a warm place to sleep for the rest of the winter. But after that he may hit the road again.
"I'm currently house challenged," he said. "No, I much more enjoy the beauty of outside rather than staying in some stuffy house and have to pay bills when you can just buy a tent for $20."
Scott Ciambor, co-chair of the Juneau Homeless Coalition, said the group will not know how many people actually attended the event until the numbers are calculated in late March or early April. The annual count is required for service providers to determine grant funding for services.
There was a large variety of people being counted, from young families to elderly individuals, Ciambor said. It is also difficult to say which services were most in demand, she said.
"It is just across the board. It is a case-by-case basis and it's hard to single one out," Ciambor said. "It's been a little bit of everything."
Ciambor said the event proved to be a success and the group hopes to hold a similar event next year.
"This is the first homeless connect and the idea is this is going to be an annual event," he said. "We are going to evaluate what services weren't here today that we can provide next year and how to run the event even better next time."
Homelessness is a community issue that needs to continue to be addressed, Tharpe-Lucero said.
"Juneau is the capital of Alaska," she said. "It is to our benefit to show people that this capital city can solve this problem and that we care enough about our citizens and our community members to solve the problem."
Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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