What’s Right With Tacoma: Project Homeless Connect grows to meet the needs
Shirley McLaughlin was unemployed and living in her Chevy Trailblazer when she got glasses, a haircut and a year’s worth of heart medication at last year’s Project Homeless Connect at Tacoma Dome. This year, she is settling into a studio apartment, and she has a job – helping to coordinate a reorganized Project Homeless Connect. The big news is that it will switch from a one-day event at Tacoma Dome to four events throughout Pierce County – at Stewart Middle School in Tacoma Oct. 20, and sites in Lakewood, in January, Puyallup in May and Spanaway in July.
The program will still serve people who have a long history of living on the streets, but it will reach out to people who are new to being homeless and have no idea what help is out there and how to get it. It will go to people in outlying districts because, thanks to public transportation cuts and the wild price of gas, they cannot get to it. “A lot of the working poor are getting laid off,” said program coordinator Valerie Pettit. “We are focusing more on individuals who are immediately homeless. We’re having all the services under one roof.”
This pleases McLaughlin, 54, who had no idea how to get help when she was laid off and losing her home. She was scared, humiliated and sick. The kindness – and blood pressure medication – she found at Project Homeless Connect last year, she said, may well have saved her life. In 2011 McLaughlin was one of 1,583 people who came for services provided by 50 Pierce County agencies and volunteer groups. They came for glasses, socks, prescriptions, checkups and referrals. They needed vaccinations, replacement identifications, mental health and veterans’ services, and help with their taxes.
“They had all the things that make you feel like a million bucks, like a haircut or a coat,” McLaughlin said. But you need to have a strategy, she warned. “Last year I got glasses. You have to get there and set your priorities and go where you need to go first.” And, if you have paperwork and documents you think would be useful, you should bring them. McLaughlin had lost everything after she was laid off from her job as a Pierce County Council receptionist. She was taking classes at University of Phoenix by day, sleeping in her truck near Wright Park at night and asking no one for help.
“One of the hardest things about being homeless is feeling useless,” she said. “I didn’t tell my kids. I didn’t tell anyone.” Project Homeless Connect took that shame away. The volunteers, more than 125 last year, respect the guests, and temper efficiency with kindness. They ask guests what worked, and what did not. They gather data on who came, what they needed and what they did not get. When organizers sorted through that information, they realized Project Homeless Connect has outgrown Tacoma Dome and can no longer fit into a single day. The number of people who need its services has grown and become more diverse, including families who, thanks to layoffs and foreclosures, are homeless for the first time and do not know how to navigate the systems built to help them.
Although there is not enough of it, that help is more effective than ever. The people who provide shelter, from dormitories to long-term homes for people on very low incomes are developing and expanding the counseling and support that are getting even the most damaged among us into safe housing, and out of jails and emergency rooms. Innovators have won funding to turn empty foreclosed houses into affordable homes. They are running sustainable clinics that keep people with chronic illnesses stable.
Project Homeless Connect has been part of that trend. Founded in 2007, it was the first such program in the state, and proved to be worth copying from Bellingham to Vancouver. The people who have accomplished all this, often on their own time, their own dime, have days when they falter. When they do, I hope they look at the people pulling all of this community’s strengths into the fight, and know they are in the right army – and that Shirley McLaughlin is grateful to be marching with them.
Project Homeless Connect of Pierce County
• Where: Stewart Middle School, 5010 Pacific Ave.
• When: Oct. 20. Doors open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with services available until 5 p.m. Free lunch..
• Information: Call Valerie Pettit at (253) 593-2111, ext. 116, or log on to http://www.pchomelessconnect.com.
Letter to the Editor
If you would like to contact us directly, please submit a Letter to the Editor here.