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Project Homeless Connect returns after modified year, sees lower attendance

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Sabine Poux/KDLL
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Past the tables of small shampoo bottles, glossy brochures and knitted hats, Shannon Schjoll is working on a client with a pair of hair scissors.

Schjoll runs haircutting business Sinshearly, Shannon in Soldotna. But today, she is one of a few dozen volunteers with Project Homeless Connect, a one-day event where people struggling or at risk of homelessness on the central peninsula can connect with resources. 

“I feel blessed I’m in an industry where I can really help change somebody’s day," she said. "Getting a haircut kinda makes people feel better about themselves.”

So far, Schjoll's cut hair for 12 clients and gave out gift certificates to several others. It's her fourth time at the event, held annually at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. On Wednesday, the space buzzes with tables of volunteers, providing food, legal counseling and health advice to clients who drop by throughout the day.

And this year, there’s a new booth for the homeless shelter in Nikiski, recently dubbed the Nikiski Shelter of Hope.

Leslie Rohr directs the nonprofit Love INC and led the charge to get the shelter up and running this winter. She is also one of the coordinators of Project Homeless Connect.

She said it’s an important chance for volunteers to take note of how many people might need assistance.

“This is our best opportunity to access a large number of people at one time," Rohr said. "Our numbers look to be a little lower this year than we had anticipated, but one of the things that’s different this year is that we’re also collecting data on household members, not just the person who is here for the event. So by collecting that household data, we’re really getting a better picture of how many homeless individuals, or those at risk, are on the peninsula.”

An hour before the event is over, Rohr estimated about 50 clients have come through the sport center doors. Almost 150 attendees were interviewed at Project Homeless Connect in 2019.

There could be a few reasons for the decline this year. For one, COVID-19 is surging. Anyone who shows up feeling unwell or who has been exposed to the virus is directed to connect with Love INC over the phone.

Kellie Bartelmay is with the Independent Living Center, an organization that works with seniors on the Kenai Peninsula to help them live more independently. She said the public transportation options to the event changed this year, too.

“And normally we have more taxis, and this year because they are short staffed, we’re only having two pick-up spots this year," she said. "And they’re very set times. And I know in the past, they kind of rotated within the community. And I think that might be a big part of it, too.”

Still, she said she’s been able to have productive conversations with potential clients. Other volunteers have, too. Abby Struffert with Ladies First said she’s had discussions with multiple women about accessing free health screenings. Kelly King with Students in Transition said she’s connected with four new families of students who lack stable housing.

Jerad Shiloh Davison had a meal at the event. He said he’s already signed up with Love INC and doesn’t have need for many of the services at the event. 

But he helped transport people who do.

“I basically just brought some friends here that are down on their luck," Davison said. "And I’ll dig myself out of my own hole. I am homeless. But I also have transportation.”

He said his friends are making use of some of the services at the event today. 

“I suppose that having all of them here in one place would be convenient to someone who especially doesn’t have transportation," he said.

Not all the people at Project Homeless Connect on Wednesday are dealing with homelessness. 

Schjoll, the hairdresser, said many of the clients she’s worked with are facing transitions of some sort. And they’re filled with hope.

“My helper, my assistant in here today, and I were just talking that they really should think about changing the name," she said. "Because nobody I’ve serviced or helped today is actually homeless. And they all have a lot of positive new things going on in their life, and are excited about a new job they just got. Or one person’s working with his mortgage company in getting caught up on some bills.”

Those who would like to access services but were sick or otherwise not able to attend the event can contact Love INC at (907) 262-5140.

Sabine Poux is the news director at KDLL. Originally from New York, she's lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont, where she fell in love with local news. She covers all things central peninsula but is especially interested in stories related to energy and fishing. She'd love to hear your ideas at spoux@kdll.org.
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