Advocates register homeless, offer help at resource fair

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 31, 2014 

A weeklong effort to survey homeless residents of Columbus ended Friday with a resource fair at the Open Door Community House.

About 70 homeless people attended the 10th annual event called Project Homeless Connect, looking for employment, housing and training opportunities. Some men even got a free haircut from a professional barber.

"You get your blessings back some way," said Kelvin Brunston, as he shaved the head of 22-year-old William Gentel. "It's my way of making a difference."

Gentel said he has been homeless since 2010. He attended the fair to find a job, so he could afford medication.

"This is good for everybody that needs some help," he said.

The event was organized by New Horizons in partnership with Home for Good: The Alliance to End Homelessness and other local agencies. About 25 vendors participated, including Hope Harbour, Goodwill Industries, the Georgia Department of Labor, the Columbus Housing Authority and the Muscogee County School District.

At noon, lunch was served in the Open House auditorium, where two former homeless people shared their personal testimonies.

Cynthia Jenkins, a 52-year-old Marine Corps veteran, described herself as "a grateful recovering addict" who was rescued by God from "the systematic, sociological situation of homelessness and helplessness." She said she was homeless from 2001 to 2008 and received help from Open Door and New Horizons. Now, she holds two certificates from Columbus Technical College. She also works as a sterile processing technician at Midtown Medical Center.

Jenkins said she's been clean for five years.

"When you're on the outskirts of life and you're not part of regular society, it's very harrowing. It's dangerous. It is filled with hopelessness," she told the audience. "You look around and see society moving in front of you, but you're not really an active participant. You want to come back to it, and you don't know how.

"I'm appealing to everybody in that situation, don't ever get accustomed to it and accept it," she added. "I always (knew) that this is not what I am. This is not what I'm supposed to be."

Demetrius McPherson, 49, said New Horizons also helped him escape a life of addiction and homelessness. He's now a custodian and student at Columbus Tech, studying automotive technology.

Earlier in the week, Home for Good launched a Registry Week to collect information about the local homeless population. The effort was part of a national campaign to house 100,000 vulnerable and chronically homeless individuals and families by July.

Christie Bevis, director of Home for Good, said about 50 volunteers went out Monday and Tuesday to survey the homeless. But the recent snowfall curtailed their plans, and they weren't able to go out the rest of the week.

She said additional people were surveyed Friday at the resource fair, and the information would be placed in a community database. She expects to have about 250 surveys when all the data is collected. Individuals and families will be prioritized based on greatest need, using a vulnerability index developed by the Boston Health Care Initiative.

Bevis said 147 people were surveyed as of Friday morning, and the information already reveals some trends.

Of those surveyed, 80 percent were male, Bevis said, and the largest age group was 50 and over. She said 63 people had been to an emergency room at least once in the last three months, and 10 had gone five or more times.

She said 72 of those surveyed slept most frequently at shelters, and 46 slept outside on sidewalks, streets and in tents. Nine people slept in their cars.

Twenty-nine people fell into the category of "tri-morbidity," which means they have a combination of mental health, substance addiction and long-term medical problems.

"Those people will be prioritized for housing first," she said.

Bevis said there are about 1,500 people homeless in Columbus every day, and the surveys only give a snapshot.

The next step will be to assess the information and work with other organizations to get homeless residents the services that they need.

David Wallace, director of fund development and residential services at New Horizons, said about 30 vouchers are now available for homeless people through the Columbus Housing Authority. Applicants will be assessed by New Horizons, then referred to the housing authority if they qualify.

On Friday, Frederick Smith, New Horizons' residential coordinator, said eliminating homelessness will help the local economy. He also said it's important to help lift people out of poverty.

"So, our job here is to provide them with the resources they need to be successful moving forward," he said. "We have about 70 clients that came today and that's great. Next year I want 100. The following year, I want 150. And in three of four years, hopefully we won't have any homelessness left in Columbus."

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