A gym floor stretched with clothing racks, pyramids of bags stuffed to the brim with hygiene kits, food, and medical supplies, and sound of eager chatter is what met EY volunteer Erika Johnson on the scene of United Way of National Capital Area’s annual Project Homeless Connect. The one day, one stop shop service fair for people in the District who are experiencing homelessness is just one of many ways in which United Way NCA fights homelessness in the region.
Before Project Homeless Connect, Erika volunteered at soup kitchens and backpack assembling events — always several steps removed from those who were receiving the services. But Project Homeless Connect is unlike conventional volunteer experiences. The one-day event gives volunteers the opportunity to truly connect with participants who are experiencing homelessness as they help them navigate through essential services like career readiness, medical examinations, haircuts and much more.
For Erika, the most memorable moment happened with the simplest request.
“I got a hug from the man that I was escorting,” she shares with a smile. “He was on his own, he didn’t have any family with him… he just appreciated me talking to him. To me, that made a big difference.”
Homelessness isn’t a new concept in the national capital region, and for many of those displaced from their homes, the process of finding stable housing is a long and rocky road. Barriers like the inability to access Wi-Fi, disabilities that require medical attention, lengthy and sometimes difficult to navigate applications, or damaged credit scores prevent people from breaking the cycle of poverty. Project Homeless Connect convenes resources that would otherwise take months to receive all in an easy to access environment.
“You always get the stereotypes of what someone who’s homeless looks like,” Erika says “It is not what you look like.”
When we think about homelessness, many of us imagine the stereotypes like veterans under the bridge, the beggar on the corner, or people struggling with mental or substance abuse. While those instances of homeless may be the most visually present, they certainly do not portray the silent reality of homelessness in the district.
For many individuals in the national capital region, who become displaced from stable housing, the prospect of homelessness is one missed paycheck away. Many individuals in transition work steady jobs, some may work several, but for some reason or another fall into debt from an unforeseen accident, a medical issue, or a layoff.
One of the hardest challenges for people experiencing homelessness to navigate is filing for critical services to help them through the transition. However, with Project Homeless Connect, United Way NCA is bringing all of those resources, participants, and volunteers to provide meaningful connections that could be the answer that jump-starts the process to break the cycle of homelessness. This year Project Homeless Connect is Thursday, October 3. To learn more or to get involved, visit unitedwaynca.org/phc.