Homeless connections get personal this year

Guidance, storytelling part of seventh annual clearinghouse of services

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Bandages and blood pressure checks are fine, but they really aren't enough.

That's what Slavi Lyubar said about trying to treat the medical issues that homeless people presented at his first aid station Thursday. Lyubar was one of three nurses dispatched by the all-volunteer Medical Reserve Corps network to Project Homeless Connect, an annual clearinghouse of services for homeless people in Vancouver, and he said he was both glad and frustrated to be there.

Patching lacerations and other skin injuries that stem from exposure is well and good, he said. But ongoing problems such as diabetes, asthma and mental illness are challenges of a whole different order — and that's what his team was seeing a lot of.

"Most come here with chronic issues," Lyubar said.

That's why his colleague, nurse Justine Schneider, gladly walked folks with chronic problems straight over to the big table where they could get help — human help, not a computer — signing up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Schneider has been providing first aid at Project Homeless Connect for years, but this time something was noticeably different, she said: a much greater proportion of folks were new at being needy. While there were plenty of chronically homeless people too, she said, many of this year's attendees were "hardworking people who are down on their luck."

"They are good people who don't have access to services anymore," she said.

That's why she was glad to keep walking folks over to the Affordable Health Care table, she said.

Lending some ears

In addition to first aid and health care enrollment, the seventh annual Project Homeless Connect, sponsored by the Council for the Homeless, offered dental exams and hygiene, vision exams and glasses, access to social services and benefits, hand and foot care, massage and haircuts, new socks and gloves, transportation resources and connections to employment and housing opportunities. There was also a free lunch.

This year's location was St. Joseph Catholic Church, which provided lots of space plus coffee and food for free, key organizer David Bilby said. That represented a savings of at least $1,200, Bilby said.

A free shuttle ran every 15 minutes from the headquarters of Share Vancouver, about two miles away on Andresen Road, Bilby said, plus there was widespread distribution of free bus passes in advance of Thursday's event. Hundreds turned out.

But unlike previous years, they didn't have to line up outside in the weather and wait to be checked in; instead there was a comfortable indoor "welcome center" with coffee and snacks. Then they were paired with volunteer hosts who escorted them to whatever resources they needed -- and got to know them along the way.

"This isn't just social services. This is reaching out with compassion," Bilby said. He said volunteers "just hanging out and lending an ear" was a crucial part of the day's services. "It needs to be about relationships. We want to connect with these people. People are people. They're no different than we are."

Bilby said volunteer participation in the event was huge and heartfelt, both among service providers and random individuals. He mentioned one young woman who emerged from prison only two weeks ago, determined to fight her tendency toward addiction and other troubles; her self-therapy was volunteering on Thursday as a doorway greeter, Bilby said. And Bilby introduced Jose Ramirez, a formerly homeless young man from California who said he's been free of gangs for about two years, and clean and sober for five months. Ramirez was volunteering at Project Homeless Connect too.

"I see this as an opportunity to make up" for some of the trouble he's caused, Ramirez said.

David Moore, a staff member with the Council for the Homeless, was steering a 52-year-old woman named Joanna toward a station where she could apply for a housing subsidy. Joanna said she does night-shift janitorial work 25 hours a week, but still doesn't earn enough to afford an apartment without having roommates. She can't find sober, responsible roommates, she said, and she can't find more work either.

Where does she live now? "Couch, couch, couch, couch," Joanna said with a sigh.

What caused her homelessness?

"Drugs," she said.

She's been sober for a year, she said -- but it's a struggle.

"It's hard to work your way back out of that hole when you're sleeping on couches," she said. "I need housing, so I can stop stressing every single minute."

Elsewhere, a team of AmeriCorps-Vista volunteers was videotaping personal stories that homeless folks wanted to share. When The Columbian dropped in, they were interviewing Jonathan, a well-spoken young man who loves to write. Camping trips with Mom and video gaming with Dad are among his favorite memories of a childhood that was more typified by parental alcoholism and stays in jail, he said.

Jonathan loves escaping into mythological worlds of his own making, he said — but right now, he added, he's "trying not to get too inspired" because he's got no paper to write on.

Annual count

Thursday also saw the Council for the Homeless conduct its annual Point-in-Time count. Volunteers and employees of various agencies fanned out in an attempt to count all the homeless in Clark County, whether in shelters, camps, on the streets or at Project Homeless Connect. The data is used to track trends and needs, and reported to the federal government. Results of the count will be released later this year.

Learn more at councilforthehomeless.org.