Nearly a thousand homeless Memphians huddled inside the Pipkin Building at the Mid-South Fairgrounds last Friday in hopes of finding anything from jobs and dental care to temporary and permanent housing.
Even more volunteers from 70 organizations were on hand to assist the homeless in meeting their needs at the first annual city-sponsored Project Homeless Connect Memphis.
The event, coordinated by the Community Alliance for the Homeless, paired homeless participants with a volunteer who helped them utilize resources at the event. Katie Kitchin, executive director of the alliance, said the most affirming part of the event was seeing that one-on-one interaction.
"Homeless people really liked having that advocate there to walk beside them and understand how, even though there may be resources in the community, it's not always as easy as it looks to leave homelessness," Kitchin said. "It's a really powerful experience both for the volunteer and for the homeless person."
Resources offered included dental care, housing programs, employment, food stamps, Social Security information, medical care, and an area where men could get a fresh haircut. Since many homeless people lack transportation, shuttle vans were sent to areas where they congregate to provide free rides to the Pipkin.
Project Homeless Connect Memphis is one of 18 strategies included in the Mayors' Action Plan to End Homelessness, a comprehensive plan introduced last January to eradicate homelessness in the city over the next decade. The event was created in San Francisco in 2004 and has since been replicated in more than 260 cities.
Keith Banks has been homeless for three months, and he attended Project Homeless Connect Memphis to get dental, employment, shelter, medical assistance, and new clothing.
"This is what Memphis needs, to reach out to the homeless," Banks said at the event.
Banks was paired with Annberly Chiarella, a volunteer from the Life Church in Cordova. In addition to helping Banks, Chiarella helped a veteran receive medical benefits and clothing earlier in the day. She also assisted people with dental issues and helped them obtain identification.
"I hope people open their eyes to homelessness a little bit more," Chiarella said. "There's not just one face of homelessness. There's children, women, the elderly, people with abuse problems. There's such an array and everyone can help."
Another attendee, David Rowe, said he's been homeless for about two years. He came to the event to get assistance with food stamps, vision and dental care, identification, and shelter.
"I'm trying to get into housing and trying to get my life together," Rowe said. "I think this a really great event that they have going on."
On any given day, nearly 2,000 people experience homelessness in Memphis and Shelby County, and 25 percent are children. Disturbed by these statistics, Kitchin said she's determined to help end homelessness in the city.
"It breaks my heart every time I drive down the street and see a homeless person sleeping outside. Nobody should live like that," Kitchin said. "It's very hard to have that in our civic consciousness."