The District’s third annual Project Homeless Connect on Thursday saw about 500 people in need gain access to critical support systems and welfare benefits offered by the city.
A large tent covered the basketball court of the Kennedy Recreation Center in Northwest, shading dozens of tables displaying pamphlets for various city services and personal goods. Volunteers paired off with each needy attendee to lead them through a maze of tables offering health screenings, housing assistance, administrative tasks and giveaways.
Clothes, underwear, pillows, umbrellas, toiletries were all packaged in tote bags that bore the names of some of the 500 nonprofits involved in the day’s events.
“From haircuts and podiatry services to glucose tests and eye exams, nonprofit organizations, private businesses, churches, government agencies and volunteers are gathered here at this one-day rescues fair to connect residents with vital services that might otherwise take weeks or months to access,” said Kevin Smith, chief financial officer for United Way National Capital Area.
In organizing Thursday’s effort, United Way worked with the D.C. mayor’s office; Friendship Place, which combats homelessness; So Others Might Eat, an interfaith charity; and hundreds of other nonprofit groups.
According to a 2016 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the District has the worst homelessness rate of 32 cities nationwide — 124 homeless people per 10,000 residents.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has made ending homelessness in the city one of her administration’s prime goals.
At Thursday’s event, some attendees praised the District’s services and homeless shelters. But other expressed frustration with the system, checking off a list of services they had qualified for but received little or no benefits.
The overall atmosphere was positive. Volunteers from hair salons offered free haircuts and manicures, and first responders gave tutorials on how to perform CPR.
“This is a 60-second CPR tutorial for the layperson,” said Lucky Arevalo, who facilitated her demonstration with four practice dummies. “People feel much more comfortable helping someone [after the demonstration].”
Other volunteers met individually with men and women to discuss specific challenges keeping them from stable housing.
Albert Townsend, an activist with the People for Fairness Coalition, is one of the men most responsible for getting the word out to the homeless population about the days events.
He’s been a homeless advocate for about 10 years, four of which he was homeless himself. During that time, he said, services for transitional housing helped him. As he has continued his advocacy, he and his colleagues have worked to establish “permanent supportive housing” for people.
“It helps people conceptualize their dream about being housed and not put a lot of barriers in their way,” Mr. Townsend said.
“The housing first model houses you first regardless of what your barrier,” he said. “We don’t look at what’s going on in your life. We house you first, and then after we house you, we figure out how to give you the best type of support.”