Well before the recession forced millions into protracted job searches, Timmy Craig had plenty of experience with his own hunt for work.
Now seven years into the search, the 52-year-old laborer has yet to find anything.
His ongoing quest led him to a Thursday event in Mesa that drew 300 other homeless and people at risk of becoming homeless. The often-shunned crowd had access to more than 30 agencies in one place who wanted to provide a quick response. The idea is that the homeless can get more service in a few hours than they could on their own over days or even weeks.
Craig said he needed a coat, a backpack, a hygiene kit - and help finding a job. Craig said he couldn't think of any other agency that can do so much at once.
"I don't know - no place, really," he said.
The Project Connect event was one of more than 30 the Valley of the Sun United Way has sponsored since 2008. The event had more volunteers than visitors to ensure visitors had enough one-on-one help to access as many services in one day.
Some visitors wanted a specific thing. But the volunteers offered suggestions about free voice mail access or even cell phone service that's available in some cases, said volunteer Donny Granado. Many visitors were surprised at what's available and wouldn't have thought to ask about some services, Granado said.
"A lot of them aren't accustomed to that kind of treatment," he said.
Many homeless people walk or take the bus to get social services, said Amy Schwabenlender, a United Way vice president. They can sometimes spend an entire day in an office waiting for service, only to be told to keep returning to figure out if they're eligible for benefits.
But with access to things like new identification cards, birth certificates, showers, haircuts and help establishing a voice mail, the homeless can get a boost having accomplished so much, Schwabenlender said.
Also, people at risk of losing their home can find help with utility assistance or rent. That sometimes is enough to get through a crisis like a medical problem or shorter-term job loss, she said.
"It really is about busting barriers with problems families have," she said.
United Way holds a Project Connect every month in a different location, joining with a particular city and agencies based there. Future locations and dates are listed at www.vsuw.org.
While most homeless services are in downtown Phoenix, Schwabenlender said the United Way holds events closer to where families live because of transportation issues. Also, the recession means suburban areas have more people in need as families double up or triple up in homes.
Some Project Connect visitors have a long road to getting back on their feet, Schwabenlender said. But others can discover one or two things that make a difference she said.
Volunteer Maria Escheveste said one man came in looking for work, not knowing he needs an email account to apply for jobs online. The man got signed up and was pointed to a website listing jobs in his trade. He left with plans to fill out applications later in the day and felt he'd have no problem finding work now, Escheveste said.
Tony Rolon of the East Valley Men's Center said the Mesa shelter took in four homeless people Thursday. One had been on the streets 10 years and didn't know about the shelter that requires guests to work as they get back on their feet. Rolon said the center sometimes helps men who never learned important skills, while others simply fell into depression and need to restore their will after a setback.
"People think it's just drug addicts and alcoholics," Rolon said. "That's just not the case. We've had a doctor and a master's degree in accounting."
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