The Homeless Initiative of the City of Asheville and Buncombe County holds meetings throughout the year to coordinate efforts among area service providers and bring them together with people who may be experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless. But the year’s biggest event is Project Connect, a comprehensive conference of providers and those seeking various forms of assistance. The event, held this year on Friday, September 10 at First Baptist Church in downtown Asheville, was made even larger by being planned alongside the nearby VA Medical Center’s Stand Down event.
“There was a great turnout. There were more people than we expected,” said Homeless Initiative Coordinator Amy Sawyer. “It really reinforces that the need is great.”
The Homeless Initiative, endorsed in 2005 by Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Commissioners, seeks to provide a holistic approach to remedying homelessness through a public-private collaboration of multiple service providers. The community-wide initiative is a forum that provides an opportunity for individual groups and stakeholders to share and compare information, find and fill gaps in service, and improve their levels of cooperation in confronting the common goal of preventing chronic homelessness.
The coordination of efforts also allows for more accurate data and a more detailed representation of the scope and needs of people experiencing homelessness in Asheville and Buncombe County. That information means available resources can be more effectively used and provides an insight into what needs still must be met.
Though an emphasis is placed on the “housing first” model, services like health care and career assistance among other needs are brought into play, and that strategy was reflected at Project Connect, in which dozens of providers, stakeholders and nonprofits participated.
Getting everyone into one location opened up the opportunity for people experiencing homelessness to find the services they are looking for. Volunteers sat with attendees, conducting interviews to find out what their specific needs were, from financial counseling and health screening to haircuts, veterinary care for pets and voter registration.
The VA Stand Down, held at Stephens-Lee Recreation Center, provided similar opportunities, but focused on the needs specific to veterans.
“There are things that are so basic, but maybe you didn’t realize how hard things would be if you didn’t have them,” Sawyer said.
A key component to the Project Connect event is also examining what services are available and what gaps still exist, and how to maximize the efforts of those in the community who are participating in addressing the issue of homelessness.
“This event is kind of like a catalyst,” Sawyer notes. “It creates conversations between providers, businesses, faith groups and others to find and identify and fill service gaps. It helps create or strengthen pathways to preventing homelessness.”
Sawyer stresses that this kind of effort could not be undertaken without immense support from the community and that, at its heart, a concept like Project Connect is a community event.
“Eventually, we would like to see the community carry the momentum of Project Connect,” Sawyer says. “Anyone can do this. It’s really a stone soup approach: We all have a little to give, and when we put it all together, we have a lot.”