The United Way of Santa Cruz County hosted the event to raise money and recruit additional volunteers and supporters for next month's Project Homeless Connect event. Each of the previous three events have linked about 1,000 homeless people with information to help them access shelters, housing, jobs, health care and other treatments.
That information was life changing for Marcus Kelly-Cobos, 41. Prior to last year's event he was living under a bridge in Watsonville, having been kicked out of two homeless shelters for breaking the rules. Struggling with addiction, Kelly-Cobos was deeply depressed, and was facing a possible 18-year prison sentence after his most recent arrest.
He came to the Project Homeless Connect looking for "some free stuff," he recalls. Though in denial about his substance abuse problems, he was drawn to a table providing information about Janus of Santa Cruz, which provides a variety of drug and alcohol rehab programs.
"They did a primary assessment, and a week later I was in a (28-day residential) treatment program," Kelly-Cobos said.
Today, he is two weeks away from celebrating a year of sobriety, attending classes at Cabrillo College, working as an intern at Janus, and living in transitional housing.
"That started the wheels in motion," he said. "Janus was the key to a whole change in life for me. It wouldn't have happened without Homeless Connect."
Kelly-Cobos was one of several people who shared their positive experiences at the reception. A volunteer homeless advocate, he is studying to become an addiction specialist with the goal of helping others overcome serious life issues like his friend Stephen Nelson does. Also formerly homeless, Nelson works as a daytime service coordinator at the Homeless Service Center, coordinating community cleanup programs and motivating others.
"There is life after homelessness and hope after drug addiction," Nelson said. "I was the worst of the worst, and volunteering is important to me. It rejuvenates hope, builds character and is a constant reminder of where I came from."
Both hope their experiences will encourage others to take advantage of the Project Homeless Connect program and improve their circumstances.
The Project Homeless Connect program will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 9, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Representatives from about 40 different agencies and organizations will be on hand to provide valuable and practical services, ranging from dental care to bike repair. Other services include haircuts, phone cards, voice mail, HIV testing, information about substance abuse treatment facilities, legal advice and wheel chair repair. Since 11 percent of the homeless in the county are military veterans, the event will include services for veterans. About 400 volunteers are needed to help people access the services they need.
"The focus is on providing services that are really going to help people get on their feet," Kymberly Lacrosse, community organizer for the United Way of Santa Cruz County, which is hosting the event along with Applied Survey Research.
There are approximately 3,300 homeless people in Santa Cruz County, according to Lacrosse. This year's event is especially important she said to introduce community members to homeless individuals, who are often stereotyped.
Santa Cruz City Councilman Don Lane, agreed.
"To me, what's so important about Project Homeless Connect is that it gives a lot of people in the community an opportunity to connect with the homeless in a personal way," said Lane.
Those kind of connections are especially important these days, Lane and Lacrosse noted.
"There is a lot of tension now about homeless issues," Lacrosse said.
The Project Homeless Connect program originated in San Francisco in 2004. Since that time similar programs are offered in over 220 cities in three countries. Along with helping homeless people, the program has proven rewarding for volunteers.
"Here's something meaningful you can do in one day and have a huge impact on peoples' lives," Lacrosse said.