Hundreds of volunteers in neon yellow t-shirts handed out winter coats and hats, helped answer specific questions and enroll people in dozens of assistance programs that already exist.
48-year old George McCree lives in Kalamazoo, but he doesn’t have a permanent job or home right now. He got help finding temporary shelter at the Project Connect event last May. That inspired him to start volunteering at a soup kitchen in town.
“Even though I’m in the same position they’re in – if I can make one person smile today – that’s a blessing from up above,” McCree said. At this Project Connect McCree says he learned about a program that can help him fix a sore tooth and get a pair of eyeglasses. He doesn’t have a pair now because he says he can’t afford it.
Organizers expect more people at the next Project Connect in May. Poverty Reduction Initiative Executive Director Jeff Brown says the down economy and cuts to state-run programs are increasing the number of people living in poverty. According to the 2010 census, roughly 1 in 5 people in Kalamazoo County live in poverty.
“We know, for example, there are nearly 700 kids in the Kalamazoo Public School System who are homeless – homeless – talking about kids living on somebody’s couch or at the mission,” Brown said, “That’s an enormous concern.”
The Kalamazoo County Expo Center is full of people checking out individual stalls for service. The longest line is for a free haircut. Volunteer Richard Evans hopes to cuts 100 heads of hair today.
“A nice haircut may enable them to secure a job, for those who are unemployed,” Evans, an instructor and the West Michigan College of Barbering and Beauty, said. “Maybe somebody just hasn’t had the money to have a haircut lately…it just makes a person feel good about themselves.”