Help for a day: Community project connects Missoula’s homeless, low-income with vital services

A man arrives at Project Community Connect on Friday to get a free pet exam for his feline companion, just one of many services offered to the city’s homeless and low-income residents at the annual event. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Carrie and Linda sat side by side in the staging area, dreaming of a haircut and some help buying food. A bus sat waiting outside while others arrived by foot, traipsing through the snow.

The Missoula women were among several hundred people who navigated the stations at Project Community Connect on Friday, an annual event designed to provide the city’s homeless and low-income residents with a one-stop opportunity to complete a number of tasks.

Whether it’s due to lack of transportation or economic resources, for some, simple chores can lie beyond reach.

“My case manager told us there was a free event going on where they help with things like haircuts and free pet exams,” said Carrie. “We just are really low income, so it’s a really nice opportunity. Some health screenings and maybe some help with food would be nice.”

The 12th annual event, organized by the At-Risk Housing Coalition, coincided with Thursday night’s annual point-in-time survey, an effort that attempts to estimate the city’s homeless population on a single night.

Last year, the survey identified 344 homeless individuals in Missoula, down from 394 in 2016.

“It’s based on our outreach efforts and what we do, and Project Community Connect is a way to draw people in so we can get those numbers,” said Theresa Williams. “But again, it’s still an estimate at the end of the day.”

Williams, a project organizer who coordinates the city’s plan to reduce homelessness, said this year’s survey saw a robust push to locate as many people as possible.

Joined by the Poverello Center’s homeless outreach team and volunteers from the Union Gospel Mission, they worked to count the city’s sheltered and unsheltered homeless population.

The survey continued Friday in hopes of filling any gaps.

“Today we’ll be asking folks where they slept last night,” said Williams. “This connect event is a way to capture those folks they may have missed. We’ll also survey other locations frequented by people who experience homelessness.”

Of the 394 homeless individuals surveyed in 2016, roughly 32 percent were families that included 78 children. Fifteen percent were chronically homeless, while 38 percent were experiencing homelessness for the first time.

This year’s figures are expected by summer.

Held at the Zootown Church on Missoula’s south side, Friday’s gathering saw a growing list of volunteers and vendors looking to lend a hand. For the first time, it also saw a number of local employers sign on, with several promoting open work positions.

“We actually have an employment fair, so there’s people hiring and that’s a new component,” said Williams. “We’re testing it, because we’d like to do an employee connect in the future. Our goal is to spread this and do more mini-connects instead of having just one large event each year.”

A woman gets a free haircut during Project Community Connect on Friday. The annual event is designed as a one-stop shop for the city’s low-income and homeless residents. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

While that effort gains traction, the annual event goes far in providing services to those in need. One man arrived with his cat to take advantage of the day’s free pet exams. A team of nurses was also on hand to offer free human health screenings.

Haircuts and help securing missing forms of identification were also handy. The latter has been identified as one of the largest hurdles in getting out of homelessness into a job or permanent housing. As one expert put it, how many people actually know where their Social Security card is?

“It’s a lot of awesome people and organizations coming together to get people the services they need,” said Will Gardner, a member of the Poverello’s homeless outreach team. “Everything is scattered around town, and while it’s a compact town with a good bus system, doing just two of the things you can do here might take all day.

“It’s just a one-stop shop and a great place to come to one location to get things done.”