Project Homeless Connect connects vulnerable communities with services

People wait in line for free haircuts at Project Homeless Connect at the Egan Center in Anchorage. Hillman/KSKA

More than 1,000 Anchorage residents experience homelessness every year. Some live in temporary or emergency housing, others are on the streets. Though Anchorage has dozens of agencies to help people, reaching them all is difficult. In comes Project Homeless Connect. The yearly, volunteer-run, donation-funded event brings services providers together to connect people with information and some immediate help.

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50-year old John peers through wire-rimmed glasses surrounded by a halo of thick curly graying hair and a bulky salt and pepper beard. He sits down in front of a volunteer hair stylist and puts in his request.

“I want this off of my face, can you do that?” he says, pointing to the six months of beard growth. “And I want a high and tight,” meaning he wanted most of his hair chopped off in a military style.

John ,who didn’t want to give his real name, is getting a free hair cut at the Project Homeless Connect event in Anchorage. He says a new, clean look will help him.

“So if I get rid of that,” he says, pointing to his mane, “maybe the girls will look at me more.”

John says it with a straight face then grins. His real reason?

“It’ll help me maybe find a job. And I have a problem with the winter because icicles get on my whiskers.”

John is currently homeless. He’s mostly been living in shelters for about four months, since his last construction job.

“It’s not very fun.” He pauses. “Too many people.”

John says he feels crowded in the shelters but sleeping in the cold isn’t comfortable either. Sitting on his lap is a check list of things to do at the event. After his hair cut he wants to learn about housing options. He says it will get him away from the alcohol on the streets.

“Because it’s not healthy. And I need to move on and I need to make it better for myself so I can be reliable so I can get this job I want.”

Project coordinator Trevor Storrs says the event is aimed at connecting people who are experiencing poverty or homelessness to necessary services.

“It takes about 50 miles to travel to get all the services that somebody needs, whereas here it takes about 50 steps.”

Different organizations are signing people up for public assistance, issuing state IDs, giving applications for housing options, offering health exams, and more. This is the 13th time the event has been held in Anchorage since it started in 2007.

Storrs says it’s also about raising awareness in the community about everyone who experiences homelessness. “We encourage all people when they are looking at those people on the corner, to remember that is not always the face. That’s just the visible. There’s a huge invisible face out there that are the families and the children, as well as the working poor” who also need permanent housing.

Back at the hair cutting station, the last of John’s locks tumble to the ground.

“What do you think?” he asks. “Does it look good?”

“You look like a different person!” I respond. Without the beard his face is a completely different shape, his nose and eyes seem much larger.

“I knew I would, that’s why I’m doing it. When I get home they’re gonna say ‘Intruder! Intruder!'”

He grins into the mirror and says he’s already encouraged.

“Someone told me I could get a job now. Said ‘Now you can get a job’ since I got the hair cut.”

He dusts off his shirt and heads off to learn about housing.