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High turnout at Cape Girardeau event that connects needy with services
It was a day of "yes" in Cape Girardeau when service providers and volunteers gathered Friday for a first-of-its-kind event to help homeless and low-income individuals and families.
Called Project Homeless Connect, the event was held at the Osage Centre and attracted nearly 250 people who sought to take advantage of the many services being offered by area providers, ranging from medical and dental screenings to legal consultation and help with Social Security benefits.
Natalie Sandoval, a social worker at Cape Girardeau's Community Caring Council and one of the lead organizers of the event, said that it was a great day in Cape Girardeau.
"We believe in our community and what we can do to help others," she told an audience of providers and volunteers. "I want to thank everybody for all of their hard work in putting this together because today is when people will be told, yes, they can receive the help they need."
Cape Girardeau Mayor Harry Rediger told the audience that on any given day, between 20 and 40 people in Cape Girardeau are without a permanent home, a number that included entire families.
"This is just one day to care for others," Rediger said, "but we'll continue the fight to end homelessness in our community."
Rediger added that the project was a hand up and not a handout.
"My desire is to help people help themselves," he said. "The people who are here today want to help themselves or they wouldn't be here."
Project Homeless Connect was initiated in Missouri four years ago with previous service-providing events in Branson, Columbia and Sedalia. The concept was to organize, for one day, a one-stop shop of services for people who need them most. This year, Cape Girardeau County was selected by the Missouri Governor's Committee to End Homelessness to host the event.
Sandoval said that when people with limited resources try to receive services, it becomes frustrating for them to be told, no, they can't receive a particular service, especially after they have dealt with agency after agency before being turned down. With the Osage Centre's gymnasium and conference rooms filled with more than 70 service providers to aid participants and more than 100 volunteers to direct them, the process became easier for those in search of assistance.
"I'm grateful that there's only one place where I need to go to ask questions and not have to run around," said a female participant who chose not to divulge her name or hometown. "It takes a lot of gas money to look into things nowadays."
Another participant, an older man from Cape Girardeau who gave his name as Joe, said he was there to inquire about veterans benefits. "I don't know why, but you just can't do things over the phone anymore," he said. "Coming here may take care of some problems I have."
The service providers seemed to understand why they were there.
"Volunteering to the extent I can to give legal advice and refer people to representation makes me glad to be here," said Mercedes Fort of the Fort Law Firm of Cape Girardeau. "I know that a lot of disadvantaged people are hesitant to inquire about their legal rights because it can be costly in many cases. This way they find out upfront how much they can expect to pay and how long it will take."
Denise Wimp, director of First Call for Help in Cape Girardeau, said her organization mirrors the goal of Project Homeless Connect.
"We're an information and referral program," Wimp said. "People come and tell us what they need by way of assistance, which can include anything from disability issues, special-needs children and getting the homeless connected with shelters and employment services. Having all of the providers here today makes it incredibly easier to do our job. We may only have to direct a person 100 feet instead of telling them they have to go across town."
Another provider gave a sobering reason for being at the Osage Centre.
"We shelter women from abusive relationships," said Michelle Scherer of the Safe House for Women in Cape Girardeau. "In a lot of situations, a woman escapes an abusive marriage or relationship only to find they have nothing to fall back on. They soon become homeless, sometimes with a child to care for. We want them to know that we're here to help them."
Some are hoping for a second Project Homeless Connect in Cape Girardeau next year.
"We want to see Cape Girardeau make the project their own, and we hope today has shown that an event of this magnitude can be successfully administered," said Jenni Miller of the Missouri Housing Development Commission, a subcommittee of the Missouri Governor's Committee to End Homelessness. "The project is dependent upon financial donations and the goodwill of the providers, but I believe Cape can take it from here. The people here have shown that they have a big heart."
1625 N. Kingshighway, Cape Girardeau, MO