Over 300 houseless people and 200 volunteers filled the Watsonville Veterans Memorial Building last Wednesday for Project Homeless Connect (PHC). The annual one-day event brings a variety of services for houseless people into a single space.

“Allowing our community’s homeless population this chance to meet all of their basic needs at once gives them a huge push forward toward finding jobs and getting off the streets,” said PHC volunteer coordinator Christina Thurston.

Services offered at PHC include dental care, medical examinations, addiction counseling, DMV services and a free meal, among other services that help address clients’ needs.

“Twenty-eight percent of homeless people in Santa Cruz County are chronically homeless,” Thurston said, adding that a person who is chronically homeless has been living on the streets for more than one year. “This event is helping us lower that number by getting people out of the cycle of homelessness.”

Marcus Kelly-Lobos, a PHC event coordinator and a former houseless client, is currently enrolled in legal studies classes at Cabrillo College. As a recovering addict and alcoholic who lived on the streets for 27 years, he hopes to provide other houseless people with the same help that he was provided.

At a PHC event three years ago, Kelly-Lobos spoke with Janus of Santa Cruz, a substance abuse treatment provider. Through ongoing rehabilitation programs, Kelly-Lobos fought his way through addiction and has been off the streets ever since.

“I went from living under a bridge to being a bridge,” Kelly-Lobos said.

Kelly-Lobos provides counseling and safe harbor for homeless people with legal troubles, as well as connects addicted people with treatment options. Kelly-Lobos said the resources he was offered at PHC helped save his life.

Thurston said there are many more stories like Kelly-Lobos’, and because of their success, PHC events spread nationwide since they began in San Francisco in 2004.

PHC has been an annual event in the city of Santa Cruz for the past four years. Last Wednesday’s event, however, took place in Watsonville in hopes of providing services for clients who couldn’t make it to the city.

Seventeen percent of the county’s unsheltered houseless population is in Watsonville—the third highest population in the county. According to a census conducted by Applied Survey Research, the highest houseless populations in the county are in the city of Santa Cruz and the Live Oak neighborhood, which have 31 and 24 percent respectively.

Houseless clients at PHC were paired with volunteers to show them around and ensured they had access to all of the services they needed. Volunteers ranged from university and high school students to local business leaders, churches and homeless shelters.

The Santa Cruz Homeless Services Center’s new director Jannan Thomas said PHC provides a helping hand for houseless clients with health risks.

“Clients at PHC are asked about their age, whether or not they’ve been hospitalized lately and whether they are sleeping outside or in a shelter,” Thomas said. “The main goal of these surveys is to determine who’s most at risk if they don’t find housing quickly.”

The Homeless Services Center helped spearhead the 180 Campaign two years ago with the goal to house 180 chronically houseless people in Santa Cruz County by July 2014. By the end of the campaign, 206 houseless people in the county were housed.

“We exceeded our goal, so we set a higher mark this time. Our new campaign is called 180/2020, and the goal is to end chronic homelessness in Santa Cruz by the year 2020. The success we had in July goes to show that this is an attainable goal.”

Thomas said PHC events will continue in Santa Cruz and Watsonville and play a crucial role in the fight to end chronic houselessness. The next event in April will take place in Santa Cruz, which Thomas said will be bigger than this year’s event.

“Our clients are people who are constantly discriminated against in their day-to-day lives,” volunteer coordinator Thurston said. “We’re here to say, ‘We are your advocates and we haven’t forgotten about you.’”

Students and community members interested in volunteering can sign up at phc-santacruz.org.