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Homeless program helps hundreds in city

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD By lunchtime on Friday over 400 homeless and individuals at risk of being homeless had attended the city's "Project Homeless Connect," according to Geraldine McCafferty, the city's deputy director of homeless and special needs housing.

"I never expected it to be this big of an event," she said. "I'm really pleased."

The daylong event was designed to connect the homeless and the near homeless with a wide variety of services provided by more than 80 agencies. The event was conducted in the convention area of the MassMutual Center, which donated the space.

The event was supported by over 15 faith-based communities, 150 volunteers and $5,500 in corporate donations.

The final number of participants was over 500.

Attendees could get eye screening at the mobile eye care van operated by the Massachusetts Lions District 33Y, open a bank account with United Bank, obtain an identification card through the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and get tested for HIV/AIDS through Tapestry Health.

There were several groups focused at providing service to homeless veterans, while others addressed housing and child-care needs.

There were lines of people waiting to see various medical professionals as well as get a haircut and a back massage.

Bill Miller, executive director of the Friends of the Homeless shelter on Worthington Street, said the idea for such an event started in San Francisco, Calif., but this was only the second time in New England that it had been presented.

He admitted some cynicism at first at how it would be received, but said he thought the response was exciting.

Philip Mangano, the director of the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness, said if the event had been isolated it wouldn't have made much real impact on the problem of homelessness in the city and the region.

As part of a 10-year plan, though, the event was "welcoming homeless in." he said. He believed such an event, coupled with other efforts, could change the trajectory of the life of a homeless person.

Springfield has completed and begun implementing its 10-year plan and is one of 300 communities across the country to do so. There is another regional 10-year plan in the planning stages now that would look at the problem for communities such as Holyoke and Northampton.

Mangano said the communities that have seen a decrease in homelessness with a 10-year plan all have one common factor: "the political will of elected officials."

He said these elected officials have to be willing to "disturb the status quo," and praised Mayor Charles Ryan of Springfield for his efforts.

Mangano said such an event helps "get rid of the stereotypes about the homeless." Being homeless isn't a chosen lifestyle, he emphasized.

On Monday some of the results of the event were announced:

Five people became housed in veterans housing

351 applications for Section 8 and public housing were completed

141 people received housing counseling

76 Massachusetts IDs issued (paid for by the corporate donations)

76 birth certificates ordered (paid for by the corporate donations)

250 bus tickets issued

70 dental screenings

21 medical examinations, with 43 follow-up medical appointments made

131 chair massages

41 foot washes

60 haircuts

50 pairs of eyeglasses ordered

29 Social Security/SSI applications

49 MassHealth/Commonwealth Care applications

29 veterans benefits applications

229 employment & training contacts

90 people received legal advice

150 people received consumer information and advice

21 people received immigration advice

65 people made phone calls

55 children cared for at the on-site child care center

600 children's books given away