Three-year-old JJ didn’t know how Project Homeless Connect came to be in Missoula on Friday, Dec. 8. What JJ did know is that he left the event with a belly full of chicken soup and sandwiches, carrying a stuffed dog that barks, a new set of crayons and glow-in-the-dark dinosaurs. More important, he walked out into the cold wearing a newly acquired winter coat, snow pants, tiny mittens and a hat. His aunt and uncle, Patricia Matt and Jimi Lee, were still trying to find a place for the three to stay that night, but seemed optimistic after a dose of help, warmth and food.
Spearheaded by the Missoula At-Risk Housing Coalition, Project Homeless Connect, a national initiative to help the homeless at one-stop events, for the first time brought together more than 35 local nonprofits, businesses, government agencies and churches that offer services for Missoula’s homeless. Volunteers erected stations throughout downtown’s First Baptist Church, where people arrived by the dozens to receive dental checkups, diabetes screenings, credit counseling, housing assistance, child-care help and much more. Spread upon the church pews were clothing and warm coats, and at lunchtime a free, freshly cooked meal was served upstairs. According to event coordinator Melissa Gordon, about 200 people received help, and demand strained supply. At 8:30 a.m., people were already lining up for the 10 a.m. opening. Missoula boasts the dubious distinction of being home to a full third of Montana’s homeless families. In 2006, that meant 98 homeless families—340 individuals—were documented in Missoula by the federal Point in Time Homeless Survey, which attempts to estimate homeless populations by locating as many homeless people as possible on one January day. In 2005, the same survey found 61 homeless families—196 individuals—in Missoula.
Lee says he and Matt have been homeless for the last year, though they’re only temporarily taking care of their nephew. Lee says Friday’s event provided some much-needed help, and Gordon hopes to repeat the event next year. By then, JJ will likely need a bigger coat.