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Making connections, one homeless person at a time

Local nonprofit offers outreach and resources to folks on the streets

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - At last week's Project Homeless Connect event in Hillsboro, people from across the Portland area were given access to books, clothes, haircuts and government resorces, medical checkups and even massages.Last February, Mike Frick stood before the Hillsboro City Council and delivered impassioned testimony about his life on the streets.

With tears streaming down his bearded cheeks, Frick, 28, told the councilors about the challenges he faced every day when searching for a place to live, applying for jobs and scrounging for food as a homeless man living on Hillsboro’s streets.

A history of drug use and an old, lingering felony charge hindered every attempt he made to improve his life, Frick said.

“A lot of places won’t help felons,” he said. “I feel helpless at this point. I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m going to do.”

In the end, Frick asked the councilors for help — whatever that might be.

Still homeless seven months later, Frick and more than 200 others attended Washington County’s recent Project Homeless Connect, a twice-yearly event at Sonrise Church in Hillsboro that draws more than 50 agencies and organizations to provide everything from haircuts to hot meals to medical care for the Portland area’s homeless population.

"Project Homeless Connect is the epitome of people working together for the greater good," said Kim Marshall, the event's director.

‘This is your neighbor’

For the past decade, Marshall has coordinated the Project — once in January to coincide with the county’s annual Point-in-Time homeless count, and once in the late summer or early fall, depending on availability and scheduling.

Most of the 60-plus dedicated volunteers at the Sept. 23 event came from Sonrise Church and Hands on Greater Portland, a nonprofit that directs willing volunteers toward event opportunities that match their passions.

But volunteers also come from less expected places, like the handful of Liberty High School students who provided childcare, or the stylists from Great Clips, The Barbers and Absolute Hair who gave more than 100 free haircuts, which goes a long way to improving a person’s self esteem, Marshall said. Pacific University provided dental and vision exams, prescribing glasses that could be picked up at the church later.

The contact from something as simple as a haircut, a chiropractic adjustment, or a massage speaks to the humanity of all the people who donate their time, she said.HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Hundreds turned out for the annual Project Homeless Connect at Sonrise Church last Friday. The event is meant to help the homeless and educate the public about needs across the Portland area.

“Although chiropractors and massages are luxuries, they’re also a necessity for this population to have some conversation and talk about what ailments they have,” Marshall said.

“We’ve seen really cool transformations happen through physical touch. You can almost watch people release some of their stuff. Sometimes it happens through tears, but there’s just a release that happens when someone is caring on them in this way that isn’t just shelter and food.”HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - During the event, more than 100 haircuts were provided by folks like stylist Cheryl Van Dyke (R),  who said it was her sixth time volunteering for Project Homeless Connect.
'I've been homeless,' Van Dyke said while cutting Nicholas Albers hair. 'I feel very fortunate to be on this side of the chair.' 
For Albers, a concessions cook at the Moda Center, getting a haircut helps wil self-confidence, he said. 'You look good, you feel good, y'know?'

Homelessness is prevalent in the Portland area, but takes many forms, she said. “It’s not necessarily the guy in dirty clothes on the side of the road begging for money,” she said.

“We want to get people to understand this is your neighbor who’s struggling — who’s a paycheck away from being homeless,” she explained. “This is a 13-year-old child — a runaway youth. It’s the gamut."

In that sense, she said, Project Homeless Connect is an educational experience for the volunteers. And spreading awareness is a key part of the mission.

Next year’s to focus on employment, families

Started in 2004 in San Francisco, the project has had variations pop up in more than 200 counties across the nation. Marshall brought the Project to Washington County in 2006, after Multnomah County ended its version.

“It’s the humanity piece of it that we really want to keep at the forefront of our mission,” she said. “...We care about them. We want them to be whole.”

With Sonrise Church members encouraging Marshall to bring more Project Homeless Connect events to their Hillsboro location, she’s developed plans to offer monthly meals, then maybe weekly meals later — care of the Sonrise kitchen.HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Steven Baugher, 59, lives on the streets of Cornelius and Hillsboro. He receives a modest income from Social Security benefits, he said, and is hoping to use it as rent, if only he could find somewhere to live. 
'Hopefully somebody will be able to help me out,' Baugher said. 'Otherwise, I don't know what I'm going to do ... I just need to find a place that'll rent to me.'

“Although food pantries are wonderful and people are getting access to food, I think there’s a difference between having a warm meal — having community to sit with — versus trying to makeshift a dinner out of ... stuff,” Marshall said.

She's also planning Project Employment Connect — an intense variation of a job fair that includes mock interviews and resume writing, as well as clothing and haircuts. And next year’s summer/fall event will focus on families, specifically, to help get kids the materials they need to be successful in school.

"Although affordable housing is the key to making real change around this issue, we can make change in the lives of our homeless friends by providing critical resources immediately," Marshall said.