Dis-Connected 

Cuts Force Homeless Project to Change—But in What Direction?

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AARON, WHO SLEEPS in trees at night to evade junkies and sit-lie tickets, came for a haircut. Ken, who camps out in Beaverton, came to see a chiropractor. Patti, who's a week into rehab at the De Paul Treatment Center, hoped to score replacements for her tattered five-year-old New Balance sneakers.

For eight hours on Friday, August 22, an event called Project Homeless Connect in Waterfront Park offered close to 1,000 needy people a buffet of free services: Dental work, eyeglasses, bike repair, haircuts, podiatry services, and complimentary socks awaited anyone who arrived early enough to snatch the first-come, first-serve appointments.

While seemingly everyone thinks semi-annual Project Homeless Connect is a great and alarmingly necessary program, right now no one knows the answer to an important question: Will it happen again in six months?

This year, the city sliced the program's funding from the budget, leaving it to City Commissioner Nick Fish's office to figure out how to continue the event. While Fish's office and the event staffers seem confident about Homeless Connect's future, they've got to come up with roughly $20,000 to fund each event.

Ruth Benson is one of the two city-paid staff members coordinating Homeless Connect. On Friday morning, she was covered in walkie-talkies as she stood in the center of a swirling crowd of people and discussed the "transitional" status of the project's funding.

"At this point, we need the funding for the staff to continue working on partnerships," says Benson. "This is meant to be a community effort. Government can't solve all the problems. We're hopefully the guiding force that helps build up these partnerships; the more partners we have, the more donors we have."

Currently, Benson estimates that the $20,000 of public funds put into the event is matched by $200,000 in private donations—including hundreds of eyeglasses, needles, and some on-the-spot medicine. About 450 people volunteer to work at the event.

Since Homeless Connect is first come, first serve and supplies are limited, not everyone who needs help winds up getting it. Reading glasses ran out at 11 am. By lunchtime, the dentists' wait lists were full. Aaron Fletcher, the man who sleeps in tress, scored a free haircut, but he arrived too late to have anyone look at his two suspected cavities. And Patti went back to De Paul with some food and a much-appreciated razor, but no new shoes.

"It's better than nothing," says Patti, upbeat. "If we could go in and take care of these things on a day-to-day basis rather than having to flock here, that would be better."

A publicly funded day-access center, which would boast the sort of services Homeless Connect offers, but on a regular basis, has been in the works for years. Its funding is currently in limbo, however, and the opening date is uncertain.

Until the day-access center opens, Homeless Connect is the city's most effective way of providing some basic health care to people who typically slip through the city's cracks and linking them into the system of social services.

"It's morally right, but if you want to be pragmatic about it, if someone can come here and get access to all the services they need, then it's going to save the city a fortune down the road," says Fish, as he sat at a table that volunteers from Supercuts were about to transform into a haircutting station.

"We're going into a down economy. There's going to be some tough calls at city hall but I'm the housing commissioner," says Fish. "I'm going to fight for all the programs which are successful, and this is a successful one.

"For this to be sustainable, I'll have to find some dollars from the for-profit and nonprofit sectors," Fish added.

Mary Carroll, the city's coordinator for the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, insists that Homeless Connect "will happen" again in a few months. "Where the money is coming from, we don't know yet."

Carroll noted that churches around Portland have taken the city's idea and made it their own, hosting two Compassion Connect events this year, which are very similar to Homeless Connect except for the addition of spiritual guidance volunteers and a lack of city funding.

The potential shift from public funding to a heavier reliance on private partners, however, raises the question of what role Portland as a city should be doing to solve the issues of homelessness.

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