Last winter’s Project Homeless Connect served 45 individuals who were homeless, or in danger of becoming homeless. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

Organizers of a major effort to aid the homeless in Sitka last winter are hoping to repeat their success this coming January.

The nonprofit Easter Group spearheaded a multi-agency collaboration to provide basic services for Sitka’s homeless called “Project Homeless Connect.” Over forty-five individuals attended the event in Harrigan Centennial Hall – an unexpectedly high turnout that caught the attention of municipal government and the public alike.

The 2013 Project Homeless Connect begins with a planning summit next Monday (11-19-12, beginning at 9 AM) at Harrigan Centennial Hall.
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Dorrie Farrell and Julia Smith both volunteer for the Easter Group. Smith says she first became aware of homelessness in Sitka when she was the administrator of the Pioneer Home.

“People would move in because they were homeless, and then we’d have visitors who were homeless. And I would see those folks on the street and think, Gosh, I wouldn’t have had a clue.”

Smith says the relative invisibility of homelessness – compared to a large city like Seattle – makes it a challenging problem to address.

“The people who need housing and don’t have a place to live may be someone you see every day and you don’t have any idea they need that help.”

Monday’s summit will be organized into three panels. The first is the immediate crisis responders. Dorrie Farrell says you’ll find the obvious agencies here – the Fire Department, the Police, the Salvation Army, SAFV – but also the not-so-obvious.

“One person who does a great deal with no official capacity is Sarah Bell at the Library. She constantly – and kindly – handles the people who come in the library to get warm, use the computers, use the restrooms. And she’s so very judicious and fair to them.”

The organizations on the intermediate and long-term solutions panel include Youth Advocates of Sitka, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, the Sitka Tribe, Alaska Public Assistance, the Baranof Island Housing Authority, and the Legislative Information Office.

A health care panel will include SEARHC and Public Health.

This is a lot of manpower in support of the homeless, but Farrell says it’s not always easy coordinating efforts. Agencies might direct someone to the right place…

“But the people they’re trying to direct don’t have cars, don’t have warm clothes, and they don’t know where to go. So it’s important that the agencies discuss what they can do, what they can’t do, and what their limitations are.”

Farrell and Smith say the public is welcome to sit in on Monday’s planning summit, if only to get an idea of the scale of the problem. Both agree that Project Homeless Connect remains only an interim solution for a problem that is not going away any time soon.

Smith says the next step is to explore funding for a family transitional center, or a drop-in shelter.

“Sometimes giving someone immediate shelter is absolutely necessary. But to help someone make it through and get back on their feet, you need something in transition, and so those two things kind of go together in my mind. We at the Easter Group are really interested in working toward this, but of course we can’t do it alone. We need partners. That’s the kind of thing we’re thinking about with the summit.”

Monday’s summit will also include a mini-Homeless Connect, for two hours from 1:30 – 3:30 PM. Smith says many event participants last January thought autumn was a more critical time to assist the homeless. The mini-event will offer six of the top services provided last January.

KCAW’s Holly Keen contributed to this story.