“It’s a 12-letter word with a whole lot of attitude,” said Chief Jerry Streich of the Centennial Fire District at the second annual Anoka County Project Community Connect event Oct. 3.
Streich addressed about 70 volunteers before they met the 91 homeless men and women they would assist that day at the Sandburg Education Center in Anoka.
Sponsored by BridgeLink, Project Community Connect arranged for nearly 45 providers to be on site so that the homeless could fulfill many of their needs in one place. Services ranged from haircuts to assistance finding shelter, transportation to help obtaining birth certificates and driver’s licenses.
“Nothing is more important than helping those who are in crisis …,” Anoka County Commissioner Carol LeDoux said to volunteers before the event began.
LeDoux and Streich spoke with volunteers because at one time, they were both homeless. LeDoux’s family home was destroyed in a fire when she was young and a combination of factors led Streich to live out of a car at 16. He called it his “mobile home.”
“It’s people like you that made the difference, that carried me through,” Streich said. “They don’t want your sympathy. They don’t want your money. … All they need is a smile, a handshake, a tap on the shoulder.” They need someone to say “just do your best,” Streich said of the homeless people who would arrive shortly.
‘People connecting with people’
Project Community Connect is a national movement that began in California. The project looks different in each community, but has a common goal, “Welcome homeless neighbors back into the community,” the Anoka County Project Community Connect website states.
Simply put, “it’s people connecting with people,” said Marielle Robinson, one of the event’s organizers, a social worker for Anoka County focusing on adult mental health and homelessness.
Jeffrey Bird has been out of work for some time without the proper documentation to secure a job. He said that Project Community Connect appealed to him in part because everything he needed would be conveniently in one place.
Volunteer Lisa Gray worked with Bird, helping him navigate the event and various providers to find the right resources.
Gray volunteered last year, too, and found the experience “humbling.”
“The services that we provide are focused on getting the deeper problem solved,” Robinson said. “The reality is every person who walks in here, their problems are different and they’re most likely not all going to be solved … but at least we’re starting.”
Joshua Borgerding, an employee of Rasmussen College, presented education options to the homeless. With education, “they can better their lives right away,” he said.
Common questions from clients last year centered around whether they had outstanding loans, if they could afford to go back to school and whether grants were available.
“Any way that you can stop homelessness, you’ve got to be a part of,” Borgerding said.
The federal government shutdown prevented at least one provider, from the Social Security Administration, from attending. Still, liaisons from the county were on hand to discuss Social Security.
In 2012, there was a 41 percent decrease in family homelessness in Anoka County, according to Irene Rodreguez, executive director at Family of Promise, a coalition of 15 area churches who provide housing for homeless families in partnership with Anoka County.
Still, more than 1,000 people remain homeless each night, LeDoux said.
“Homelessness in Anoka County is a hidden issue,” she said. “Today, we are working to change that.”
Olivia Koester is at