By Mary Elizabeth Dial, Staff Correspondent
When most people think of things homeless individuals go without, a few obvious possessions spring to mind: shelter, nutritious food, new clothes. The reality is that homeless individuals are also deprived of little things that are often forgotten: reading glasses, voter registration information and haircuts, just to name a few. For the homeless population of Etowah County, some of these needs are met by the Homeless Coalition of Northeast Alabama and Project Homeless Connect.
Project Homeless Connect began in 2004 in San Francisco and made its way across the country, finding a place at the Homeless Coalition of Northeast Alabama (HCNA) in October 2012. Since then, the organization has held nine events and estimates that between 50 – 80 people have been helped at each one. Covering Etowah, Calhoun, Cherokee and DeKalb counties, HCNA had served over 450 homeless persons as of September 2016. That number grew on September 21, when HCNA held its fifth annual Etowah County event.
“The event is a way for people who are currently experiencing homelessness or are at risk for homelessness to access various services in one stop so that they’re not running all over town,” lawyer and volunteer Misty Ledbetter said. Those services included basic health screenings, HIV testing, legal advice, reading glasses, information on preventing sexually transmitted diseases, addiction services and housing applications, all provided free of charge. In addition to access to the various services, attendees also received bags full of donated items they may not have been able to purchase, like socks and bottles of water.
HCNA also brought in students from Jacksonville State University’s social work program to guide attendees through the event and help them make the most of the resources provided. Those volunteers also make sure each event is adequately staffed, as more and more people make the most of its services.
“It’s grown every year, a little bit,” Ledbetter said. “We usually don’t advertise except internally, through agencies [and] places that we know there’s homeless individuals. We [also] go out into the community and hand out flyers.” The idea, she explained, is to make sure the services help the people who need them most.
“If they need anything beyond what we can provide today, then we get them partnered with an agency or with whomever can assist them going forward,” said community development planner Renée Baker. Multiple people, she said, have been taken from a Project Homeless Outreach event to the hospital in the past to deal with dangerous health issues.
In small towns, the issue of homelessness often goes unnoticed, but Ledbetter, Baker and their fellow volunteers are working to ensure that every member of the Etowah County community can access the services they need.