Imagine 3,000 homeless adults and children lined up outside a convention center in the middle of winter. Imagine this crowd moving inside and being greeted by 1,500 trained volunteers all wearing black shirts, all eager to help. The homeless guests then pick a black-shirted person who will be their guide for the day. That guide will stick with them and be their advocate until they get all the services they might need in that one space, services that include medical exams, vision care, hot meals, bike repair, housing opportunities, and such provisions as coats, sleeping bags, children’s clothing and personal hygiene items.

This is not a fantasy. First held in San Francisco in 2004, these events have now taken place in some 200 communities across the country. Organized by Project Homeless Connect, they combine political and civic commitment to provide hospitality, support, and resources to move people out of homelessness.

A short, six-minute YouTube video

of a recent San Francisco gathering shows Project Homeless Connect in action and the impact it has.

December 7, 2009 was a big day at the Minneapolis Convention Center for Project Homeless Connect.Thanks to 1400 volunteers and over 400 service providers, they were able to serve over 1600 people.Here are some highlights of the day:

708 people received free winter shoes
580 Minnesota IDs and Birth Certificates were issued and 200 more Birth Certificates applied for
393 people received legal consultation
305 people saw a dentist and 74 people had teeth extracted
224 people had their hair cut
214 people received Social Security assistance
200+ people received free reading glasses and 92 got new prescription glasses
175 people applied for housing, 179 placed on wait lists, and many moved into housing that week
163 veterans got connected to veterans’ specific benefits
122 people got connected with high school (GED) or college education programs
118 parents received child care resources
106 people received free voicemail accounts
102 people received urgent medical care and foot care
100 people enrolled in job training programs, 19 applied for employment
85 people received chiropractic care
65 people received help writing a resume
64 people received a mental health evaluation
57 people received 91 vaccines, including 52 H1N1 shots
54 people received referrals for free veterinary care
50+ youth were connected with age appropriate services
36 people received prescription medications and necessary medical equipment
16 people received damage deposits or rental assistance to move into apartments immediately

Project Homeless Connect is truly a transformative experience, not just for the guests, but for all who come together as a community to help break down the barriers that prevent people from escaping homelessness.


Shawn, homeless for three years, with his Guide,
Adria Richards. (photo from Flickr by Adria)

To what extent is homelessness a problem and why? Without telephones or a fixed address, the homeless are extremely difficult to count. (Generally, homelessness is defined as persons who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence.)

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated that in mid-2009, between 2.3 and 3.5 million people were experiencing homelessness in the United States. Of this number, 40 to 50 percent were 22-years old or younger and 30 percent had jobs.

In order to reduce homelessness, it is necessary to identify root causes. It is generally agreed that the lack of affordable housing is the principal explanation for homelessness. For example, in Minneapolis to afford rent on the cheapest apartment working at the minimum wage, one has to work at least 80 hours per week, which many people are not able to do because of child care and other obligations. While it is true that some of the homeless suffer from mental illness and/or substance abuse, much less than half of the homeless remain on the street because of these problems.

Project Homeless Connect is a wonderful model for bringing community resources to the aid of those in need of social services. However, even if it were to expand to thousands of communities in the United States, it would not eradicate homelessness. Making a huge and permanent dent in homelessness will require leadership, compassion, and a combination of public and private resources