Project Homeless Connect prepares to help nearly 2,000 people today

If you're homeless and living in Minneapolis, you probably spend a lot of time traveling from one social services agency to another. There's the building where you apply for public housing, the clinic where you get your blood pressure checked, the welfare office where you drop off paperwork, the workforce center where you get help with a resume.

Navigating between all of those services can be exhausting, but twice a year, there's another option -- Project Homeless Connect.

The event opens today at 10:30 a.m. at the Minneapolis Convention Center. More than a thousand volunteers will be on hand to provide everything from dental exams to haircuts.

Organizers expect to serve nearly 2,000 people in less than six hours.

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(The last Project Homeless Connect event at the Minneapolis Convention Center attracted nearly 1,800 guests and more than 1,000 volunteers. Photo courtesy of Project Homeless Connect.)

Matthew Ayres, project manager for the Office to End Homelessness, coordinates the event. His favorite moment, he told me, happens right when the doors open.

As hundreds of people enter, each one is greeted by a different volunteer who serves as a day-long guide through 300,000 square feet of services.

"It's like a treasure hunt," Ayres said. "People are just excited, and they're running, and they're doing stuff, and every time, I look around and I see people crying. It's just such an emotional thing to make this huge massive connection all at once."

Housing referrals, job search and training assistance, dental care, and state I.D. replacement are among the most popular services, he said.

Nearly one-third of participants walk in the door without an official I.D., he said. Volunteers can replace I.D.s on-site, and they offer vouchers to cover the cost of replacing birth certificates.

"It's folks that were escaping domestic violence and lost all their stuff, or their landlord evicted them and threw away all their stuff, or it just got lost or stolen," Ayres said.

(A man applies for a new I.D. at a Project Homeless Connect event in Dec. 2010 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Photo courtesy of Project Homeless Connect.)

A complete list of the services offered is available here.

Similar events are held throughout the state on different days throughout the year. The next St. Paul Homeless Connect is scheduled for June 19 at the St. Paul RiverCentre from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.