Homeless population’s growth propels volunteers

Kimberly Davis was adamant about the importance of Project Homeless Connect.

“This is a necessary thing,” Davis said. “This is not a ‘get your free crap’ thing. This is for people who need it.”

Davis, 47, and her partner Darrell Fields, 50, had traveled down to the Seaside Convention Center from Astoria on Wednesday night to ensure they would receive the vital services available on Thursday.

And Davis and Fields certainly succeeded in securing two prime spots in line.

“She was number one and I was number two,” Fields said with a laugh.

Project Homeless Connect, organized by Clatsop Community Action, is an annual opportunity for local agencies and service providers to fill the convention center and give low-income, nearly homeless and homeless area residents access to a variety of services that cover health, education, housing, employment, food and more.

Davis and Fields had recently lost almost all their belongings, and they needed any help they could get.

“All our stuff got washed out in the storm,” Fields said, referring to the heavy winds and rains of the last few days. “When you’re living outside and you lose everything, it’s hard.”

The couple clutched bags brimming with necessities – long johns, socks, food, soap – as they walked the rows of agencies inside with volunteer Christine Trexel, of Astoria.

Trexel was matched up with Davis and Fields after they entered the convention center, and she and the other yellow-shirted volunteers helped the clients find what they were looking for.

“They keep them on task,” said Tony Degoede, a case manager at Clatsop Community Action who spearheaded this year’s event, of the volunteers. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed.”

Trexel, who moved to Astoria a year-and-a-half ago, heard about the event on the radio and wanted to get involved. It was an opportunity to help with an issue that she thinks often gets overlooked.

“I don’t actually hear that much about homelessness,” Trexel said, “and I think the fact that Clatsop Community Action exists and that this (event) exists makes me think this is a bigger issue than I thought.”

Rising numbers

Project Homeless Connect, a nationwide event, is in its fifth year in Clatsop County and its fourth at the Seaside Convention Center.

In those five years, everything has increased, according to George Sabol, executive director of Clatsop Community Action.

“We have more volunteers, we have more agencies, we’re providing more services,” Sabol said.

Around 55 agencies and service providers were at the convention center providing free services, including immunizations, vision and hearing screenings, mental health services, addiction recovery information, assistance with medical insurance, dental care, assistance with child care and parenting, shower vouchers, free children’s books, information on housing, job training information, legal assistance, food, water and more.

Unfortunately, the number of individuals who are homeless in Clatsop County has also increased.

“The numbers have gone up each year,” Sabol said.

Clatsop Community Action does a count of the homeless population each January that they then report to the state for funding and accounting purposes. Five years ago that number was around 100; last year, the organization counted 1,000 homeless people living in Clatsop County, according to Sabol.

“It’d be nice if we could stop having this event – to go out of business,” Sabol said. “I don’t believe that’s going to happen.”

The attendance of Seaside’s Project Homeless Connect has held steady at around 200 participants each year, according to Degoede and Sabol, and Sabol said that he finds that clients seek out the services they can’t normally get: free haircuts, help with identification or Social Security cards and, of course, “hot meals are always a big thing,” Sabol said.

Chelisa Hernandez, 32, of Seaside, was on the hunt for help with an identification card for her fiancée, Lester Frenett.

Identification cards are often required for housing, employment and myriad other social programs, and Clatsop Community Action made a point to pay for IDs – $45 each – for all those who needed them.

“ID is a really big issue,” Degoede said as he stood near the tables for the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Administration. “We sign them up and we can pay for their ID and birth certificates.”

An hour-and-a-half into the event, Degoede said they had 29 clients signed up to receive identification.

Thanks to Hernandez, Frenett was one of those 29. Both Hernandez and Frenett are graduates of the Helping Hands Re-entry Program and both work in Seaside, where they live in an apartment with Hernandez’s son, Carlos, 7.

Chelisa Hernandez appreciated the opportunity to be able to swing by the convention center and have access to so many useful services.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “I really think it’s a great thing to have all these services coming to you … that they’re all here and available.”

Phil Butcher, of Worksource Oregon’s Disabled Veterans Outreach Program, was one of the representatives from local agencies that attended Project Homeless Connect.

Butcher, who assists veterans accessing medical care, enrolling in social programs and connecting them with local agencies, summed up the prevailing attitude at Project Homeless Connect: there has been a lot of progress, he said, “But there’s very much more work that needs to be done.”

The Daily Astorian, 1.31.14. Link: http://goo.gl/FgP5yc

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