Getting in a full day of errands — going by the license commission, paying off a court fine, visiting the dentist — can be difficult to organize for anybody, but for the homeless, it can be nearly impossible.
One of the goals of Project Homeless Connect, an annual event sponsored by the non-profit Housing First Inc., is consolidating a plethora of vital services into one central location so those who need them most can have access that could otherwise be difficult to obtain.
“Just think… If I was homeless and needed to get a photo ID and my vision checked and I needed something done through the court system, it’d be difficult to run around and do all that with very limited resources,” Eric Jefferson, executive director of Housing First said. “So we thought, ‘How great would it be if we could get everybody in one place… just for one day.’”
Why the idea may seem simple, bringing together volunteers and service providers from the Mobile County Health Department, South Alabama Volunteer Lawyers Program, Alabama Department of Motor Vehicles, AltaPointe, the Department of Human Resources, the Mobile Housing Board and the Veteran’s Administration — to name a few — is trickier in practice.
For starters, it requires a fairly large area. Fortunately, The Grounds, home of the Greater Gulf State Fair, has offered a space to host the event for the past two years, and according to Jefferson, that saves Housing First an annual cost that “would be upwards of $95,000.”Project Homeless Connect has been able to organize dozens of service providers and assist hundreds since it started in 2013. Last year, it drew more than 325 homeless individuals to The Grounds, who received not only basic medical and hygiene services but also job opportunities and legal assistance.
“The University of South Alabama medical school students provide health screenings and the volunteer lawyers program provide legal services for individuals who may have issues they need to get resolved, which can keep them from getting housing,” Jefferson said. “You’ll also have city and the county courts there, and they’ll actually be able to hear cases that day.”
Jefferson said getting the court systems involved and willing to hold open formal proceedings at the fairgrounds was “a big deal” and has been beneficial for a number of Mobile’s homeless that otherwise could wind up incarcerated or with a criminal record that can be an impediment when trying to access shelters or find permanent housing.
“The courts have been a part of this all four years. Last year we had about 70 people go through talking to the attorneys and around 30 of them saw the courts that day,” Jefferson said. “Some of them got those issues resolved, though some had to be continued.”
Other services include Ransom Ministries’ Clean Machine — a self-contained 22-foot trailer with two bathrooms, three washing machines and three dryers that will allow those attending the event to shower and do laundry at no cost. The Delta Bike Project and Delta Dogs will also be on hand offering bicycle repair services and basic veterinary care for those who have pets.
Now in its fourth year, Project Homeless Connect routinely follows the Point in Time Count. That process documents the number of homeless people living in the area, something that has to be done and submitted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] in order to receive federal funding.
In 2016, Housing First documented 627 individuals that met HUD’s definition of homelessness in Mobile, Baldwin, Jackson and Washington counties — with the largest concentration, 495, located within the city of Mobile. However, over the past three years, Housing First has recorded a 16 percent drop the numbers from that report.
That’s been the trend. We’re still seeing them going down and we suspect they’ll be down again this year,” Jefferson said. “I always like to see the numbers go down. That means that we’re housing people and that some people no longer need these services, but for those that do, we want to make sure they have an opportunity to get them.”
This year’s Homeless Connect Event is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 27, and services will be offered from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on The Grounds at 1035 Cody Road N. Mobile, AL 36608. Housing First has also partnered with the WAVE Transit to offer free transportation to Providence Hospital, where shuttles will be running to and from the event all day.