RICHMOND -- A day of outreach paired hundreds of people in need with assistance Wednesday from an army of volunteers at Project Homeless Connect 2014 at Richmond Memorial Auditorium.
Lavonna Martin, deputy director of Contra Costa Health Services Homeless Program, estimated 600 customers would be greeted by a record 200 volunteers and receive assistance from nearly 50 service organizations at the one-day event.
Homeless people received food; medical, vision and dental care; legal advice, IDs, haircuts and pet care and gained access to shelter and employment support at the event, coordinated by the Contra Costa Health Services Department's Behavioral Health Division and co-sponsored by the city of Richmond and Chevron.
The daylong outreach was helped by social media, according to Martin, who credited mobile platforms for attracting volunteers in numbers about 30 percent higher than average.
Project Homeless Connect rotates between Antioch, Richmond and Concord. This year, a concerted effort was made to reach out to veterans, many of whom Martin said were "on the precipice of a housing crisis."
Inside the auditorium, Vietnam veteran Marcus Jackl, 65, said he was "100 percent service connected," but lacked the funds to pay a security deposit and first month's rent on an apartment. Battling Parkinson's disease and other health concerns and complimentary of the Veterans Affairs services he'd received thus far, he was determined to regain stable shelter.
"I'm living on a boat up near Bay Point," Jackl said. "I'd like to be on land."
Peter Billeci, living at Discovery House in Martinez, said he became homeless when his dad lost their shared Pittsburg home, his mother died, his kids left town and his addictions snowballed.
"This is the first time for me: I want help with anything," he said. Focusing on returning to work, he was relieved to learn that the Economic Empowerment initiative of Richmond-based Rubicon Programs, which offers employment, housing and other support services, is available in Antioch.
Martin said free buses brought people from all over the county to the event, with shelters and places like the Monument Crisis Center in Concord serving as pickup hubs. "Contra Costa County is 733 square miles, so transportation is a huge problem for the homeless," she said. "Events like these are often the only times our customers get services all year."
Cynthia Belon, CCHS Behavioral Health Division Director, said her department is working to eliminate the access obstacle.
"We shifted our focus to comprehensive care to get better outcomes," Belon said. "This isn't a one-day event, because it helps them connect to a system of care throughout the year."
Customers weren't the only people discovering connections. Connie Williams, a case management worker for Concord-based Anka Behavioral Health Corporation, sought information at a Department of Veterans Affairs table. "I want to be able to direct the clients who are vets to knowing their housing rights and about services that will help them," Williams said.
Martin said that while data collected this year indicate the number of newly homeless is decreasing, the overall picture shows a steady climb -- especially of youths and families with children who are homeless. The CCHS reported that, as of Jan. 1, 2014, nearly 38 percent of the county's homeless population was children and young people.
Michelle Oliverez and her 12-year-old son, Miles, have been traveling between Stockton and the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond. Oliverez's older son will be released from prison in eight months and she's working to establish a home in the Bay Area.
"I have to satisfy personal finances before I get a job," Oliverez said. "I have to set up shop. I can't let my boy come out to nothing,"
Her younger son said the tumultuous living arrangements are made bearable by his mom. "She helps me out with everything. She's the one, she's a rock," he said.
His mother said that daily prayer, and outreach services such as a haircut for Miles, reading glasses for herself and a financial workshop she'd signed up for, are steps toward obtaining housing that will allow her to say "welcome home" to her sons.
Anyone 18 or older can sign up to volunteer at the annual events. No special skills are required and training is provided. For details visit firstname.lastname@example.org.