By ROLLIN HU
For The News-Letter
United Way of Central Maryland, a non-profit group, hosted the fourth annual Project Homeless Connect at the Baltimore Convention Center on Thursday. About 2,000 people experiencing homelessness from all over the Baltimore area attended the event to connect with numerous community resources.
The University’s Center for Social Concern encouraged students to volunteer for the event and organized rides to and from.
Associate Director of the Center for Social Concern Gia Grier McGinnis explained the purpose of the event.
“Project Homeless Connect is essentially a resource fair for people experiencing homelessness. It’s basically a one-stop-shop for a variety of services like haircuts, dental, medical… [and] housing resources,” McGinnis said. “United Way has made some arrangements with certain agencies to allow people access to services that maybe would have been harder for them to do if they had to go around the city.”
A variety of organizations came to offer their help, which ranged from advice, connections, or medical treatment, to the homeless participants.
Agnes Arnold of Eastern Savings Bank came to the fair to offer financial services to the people experiencing homelessness.
“Today we’re here just to provide information regarding opening bank accounts, tips on how to save money, what you need to open a bank account, choosing the right bank, [and] also how to clean up a record if you have a bad record,” Arnold said. “We give them a chance.”
Maryland’s Commitment to Veterans, which seeks to help out homeless veterans, also had a booth at the fair.
“We connect veterans to any kind of resources they might need, whether it be disability, getting enrolled with the VA— anything they might need help with. We connect them with the right resources,” David Galloway, a member of the organization, said. “It’s great because veterans have done so much to serve our country. It’s great to be able to give back to them, especially when they are hitting upon hard times and are trying to get back up on their feet.”
John Soyers and Jack McCarney, who have experienced homelessness before, received help from the event.
“It helped me get my glasses, get dental. There’s a lot of stuff to help here,” McCarney said.
Project Homeless Connect linked Soyers with services he needed.
“I got glasses too, and it really would’ve helped me out if I could have gotten my ID,” Soyers said. “But then they told me where I could go in Baltimore to go get it. This is a great thing. Everybody is really nice, really helpful.”
McGinnis also praised the contributions of the event’s volunteers.
“The idea is that volunteers essentially help them navigate the fair,” she said. “So when volunteers get matched, the person basically describes their needs and the volunteer goes around with them.”
By having volunteers matched with an individual experiencing homelessness, Project Homeless Connect can break down misconceptions and stereotypes of people experiencing homelessness, according to McGinnis.
“This event in particular can be really transformative because a lot of people have certain perceptions of what a homeless person looks like, and the event asks people to reframe their thinking,” McGinnis said. “The event is really about empowerment and breaking the stereotypes of the volunteers because a lot of them get to hear the stories of the people experiencing homelessness.”
Soyers addressed some common misconceptions about those experiencing homelessness.
“They don’t want to work or that they’re bums, stuff like that, which is not true,” Soyers said, “Because anything can happen at any time, and like that [you’re] homeless.”
Volunteer Sky Mussetter also addressed misconceptions about homeless people.
“My person, Gina, she seemed really motivated, willing to help people out, wanted to make a difference,” Mussetter said, “From my experience there are a lot of people who want to make a difference, change their environment. She was really motivated to find a job.”
The event was a success, as articulated by the Project Manager, Hopkins alumnus Scott Gottbreht.
“We served approximately 2,000 people, we had about 2,000 volunteers, and we had upwards of 130 service providers present,” Gottbreht wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
Some participants and volunteers said they want events like Thursday’s fair to happen more often. An organizer of volunteer staff Sally Frum, however, thinks the event should expand to other areas of Maryland.
“[Project Homeless Connect] is way too massive. However, because we’re a national model, other counties are now saying, ‘We want to do one’,” Frum said. “So if by replicating this in other areas, perhaps we’ll hit more people that way. I can’t imagine how we could do this twice a year.”
Student volunteers responded positively to their experience at the event.
“It was amazing to see all the resources that they have and the services that people are able to get connected with there,” senior Kathryn Rees said. “I didn’t really realize the scale of thousands of people showing up to the event. It was really exciting to be a part of.”
Rees also notes the importance of going outside the “Hopkins bubble” to meet and serve the community.
“I think it’s really important to know the community around the school because we live here for four years,” Rees said, “It’s important to understand the underlying social issues and injustices that are happening all around us.”