Project Homeless Connect: COVID-19 changed its plans, but not its commitment

Story and photos by JANE KREMER

Oct. 9: This would have been the day where service providers, volunteers, and the majority of those experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake County would meet at the Salt Palace for services to be rendered and received. But, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the plans.  

Project Homeless Connect, a nonprofit organization run by its committee and volunteers, holds a service event for those experiencing homelessness in Salt Lake County annually in the fall. 

According to the organization, among the most popular services provided by this event are medical, dental, vision, and haircuts. In 2019, 125 service providers and 900 volunteers aided over 1,000 people currently experiencing homelessness, with over 3,000 services provided. 

Project Homeless Connect’s fall 2019 service event at the Salt Palace in downtown Salt Lake City.

Mike Akerlow, executive director for Project Homeless Connect in Salt Lake City, started the organization here in 2017 after attending a panel discussing homelessness and PHC in other cities across the U.S. 

Akerlow, who worked for the mayor of Salt Lake City at the time, gained traction for PHC through resources and press coverage from the mayor and support from the community. 

The Salt Lake City Library and a Veterans Administration program, Project Stand Down, had held events similar to those previously conducted by PHC. As Akerlow assembled a team for PHC, he incorporated those programs into the event. 

After running the Salt Lake organization for three years, Akerlow said the organization has been able to improve each year by making its steering committee stronger and refining services provided to people experiencing homelessness. 

“Every year we look at how do we make this the best experience for everyone coming,” Akerlow said during a phone interview. “I think the point of it is to make sure people [experiencing homelessness] are getting connected to the right things.”

In 2020, however, Project Homeless Connect has had to change its events due to the health and safety restrictions of COVID-19. 

Originally, PHC planned to hold events every Friday in October at different homeless resource centers where service providers and volunteers would meet to aid the population. Then, with the surge in cases of COVID-19 in late September, the events fell through.

“Once cases started going up, some of our service providers also got a little bit nervous, so they decided to pull out,” Akerlow said. “And it made sense, we didn’t want to expose people who are experiencing homelessness.”

One of the biggest challenges for the committee this year was reducing the number of 900 committed volunteers down to 20 volunteers due to health and safety restrictions.

Volunteers, from left, Nate Kremer, Robyn Kremer, and Mandy Allen collect donations from community members at a donation drive in October 2020.

“People in our community want to help. I think there’s a lot of people out there who don’t have organizations that they already go to or belong to, and they’re looking for ways that are more meaningful than the traditional service opportunities,” Akerlow said. “And Project Homeless Connect provides that for a lot of people.”

Rethinking how PHC will continue to serve in 2020 and 2021 has been challenging with new information daily surrounding COVID-19. Committee member Natalie Clawson, one of the logistics coordinators for PHC, said the centers that the team planned to visit went the whole summer without a positive COVID-19 test result. 

But as the rise in numbers of COVID-19 in Salt Lake City became more prevalent, PHC had to postpone bringing the services to the centers. 

“The executive directors at all the centers totally understood why we needed to postpone the events,” Clawson said during a phone interview. 

Clawson, who’s been a part of PHC since the first year as a volunteer, said her job description this year is far different than a normal year. 

“At first it was very scary,” Clawson said. “But then as you dig into it, you’re like, you know what this is an opportunity to create and to get everything on its head and rethink what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.” 

Reinvention, as Nicole Handy, the other logistics coordinator for PHC, said, is what this year is all about. 

“As we know, nothing is easy about 2020,” Handy said in a phone interview.  

Handy said the committee knew it wanted to keep the same values and goals while delivering the services this population needs. 

“There is something really rewarding of going in and organizing this event that overall has a really positive outcome,” Handy said. “We are excited when we are able to get back into the centers to really bring some of those high priority [services] in.”

The Project Homeless Connect team held donation drives throughout October, accepting donations such as clothing, hygiene items, and pet care products. It also had a donation link on its website, and had an Amazon wish list that members of the community donated to. 

Bags of donations waiting to be distributed to homeless resource centers across Salt Lake County.

For spring of 2021, PHC plans to return to the original idea of visiting the homeless resource centers weekly to provide services, meals, and donations. Members of the community can learn more about volunteer opportunities for PHC in 2021 and sign up through the website.

The committee for Project Homeless Connect, according to its website, has committed to the idea that “COVID-19 has changed the plan but not our commitment to serving our homeless friends.” 

As Mike Akerlow, executive director for PHC in Salt Lake County, said about the first year, “We did it, somehow we did it.” Little did he know, the very same thing could be said about Project Homeless Connect in 2020 and 2021.