Project Homeless Connect unites homeless with those who can help


Back in the first years of the 2000s when homelessness in Minnesota seemed to be leveling off, there beat in the hearts of many the hope that maybe someday all the homeless would be housed.

But a gathering I attended just the other night in a south Minneapolis church with about 50 other volunteers demonstrates the elusiveness of that goal. All had come for training for the 11th Project Homeless Connect Minneapolis/Hennepin County, a huge event connecting the homeless or those on the verge of homelessness with a vast array of social services provided by both public and private sectors all under one roof for one day.

The May 23 event to be held at the Minneapolis Convention Center is expected to draw about 2,000 “guests” in need (the fruit of the economic recession) as well as more than 1,000 volunteers primed to guide them through a maze of services offered on two floors.

At the training, a small woman with a lengthy title and a big job who helped launch the first such event in Minnesota in late 2005 — one of the first in the country — reached for the microphone and recited a few painful stats.

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About 13,000 Minnesotans are homeless, said Cathy ten Broeke, coordinator of the Office to End Homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County, including about 4,000 in Hennepin County, with 47 percent of them age 21 or younger and 19 percent military veterans.

My peek at that 2009 research, the most recent count available from Wilder Research, also startlingly reveals that: 20 percent of the homeless are working, 68 percent live in metropolitan areas and 62 percent of the state’s homeless adult population are people of color. (Adults of color make up about 13 percent of the general population.)
One-stop event

Project Homeless Connect is “a one-stop-shop service event for people who are homeless or just on the edge” of being homeless, as well as a “prevention event,” says ten Broeke.

The first such Minneapolis event attracted 500 people seeking help. Last December, 1,411 households were helped. Attending were 1,710 individuals, including 81 unaccompanied youth ages 14 to 21 who were served, with numbers lowered by a heavy snowfall. Twenty-eight percent had families with dependent children. Only 21 percent were white, a figure that has organizers trying to recruit more people of colors as volunteers.

Now, there are 28 such events around the state each year, including two in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul.

Twice each year, ten Broeke tells the mostly white volunteers, the city and county partner with service providers, businesses, citizens and faith congregations to bring together at one location a long menu of services. Count among them housing and employment assistance, mental health and chiropractic care, help with Social Security and military veterans matters. Provided are eye exams, urgent medical care, tooth extractions, haircuts as well as official birth certificates and I.Ds.

“It’s not just, ‘Here’s my card, call me later,’ ten Broeke says. The idea, she says, is to solve a person’s problem right then.
What does it cost? “It’s a highly-donated event,” an “entirely privately funded event,” ten Broeke says, beginning with free space from the Convention Center, followed by donations from philanthropic organizations, individuals and foundations — including Thrivent Foundation for Lutherans, she called “probably the largest donor for the event — as well as businesses.

Costs are about $35,000 to $40,000 each event; monetary donations are tax deductible.

Donations keep expanding

About 140 groups or agencies are involved, but that translates into many more people helping out. And the donations keep expanding, with haircutters and eyeglasses providers stepping up to donate services.
Among those giving of their time and expertise is Minneapolis dentist Adele Della Torre, a volunteer at that first event, who got and stayed involved, reaching out to Apple Tree Dental, a nonprofit. By the third Homeless Connect she was responsible for bringing in two dental chairs, another dentist and a few dental hygienists. This month there will be seven dental chairs and 15 to 20 dentists volunteering their time.

“All they do is extract non-restorable teeth,” she said. “These people suffer with toothaches, sometimes months at a time” because they can’t afford dental care.

This month a couple of the chairs will be reserved for persons who need a serious cleaning. “Some of them have never seen a dentist. They just need so much work. We’re trying to transition to the point where we’re saving teeth,” Della Torre said.

Dentures, too, are desperately needed by this population of people, the dentist said. She’s hosted events at her home to raise the money to fund dentures for the homeless.

She and her dental partner also volunteer at the St. Paul event. “It gives me some satisfaction. It’s far from a solution.”

Did you think back in 2005, I asked her, that the event signaled the beginning of the end of homelessness?

“We were about to kick off the initiative to end homelessness,” she says. “Yeah, so Project Homeless Connect was in a sense a way of galvanizing the community to end homelessness.” But it also demonstrated the need, becoming an “an eye-opener in a really personal way” to the community, she said, and eliciting more support.