COLUMBIA — Eight days ago Robert Raymer was wandering and homeless in North Dakota. After four days of aimless hitchhiking, he landed in Columbia. Raymer has lived here for four days, sleeping rough, showering at St. Francis House and eating where he can.
He was one of about 100 homeless individuals living in Columbia who found a wealth of resources on Friday at Project Homeless Connect, an event designed to create a one-stop location for services homeless individuals often need. All services were provided through donations and sponsorships.
Fifty service providers met at Silverthorne Arena on the campus of Stephens College as part of the event, which was put on by the Project Homeless Connect Committee and the Governor's Committee to End Homelessness. Similar programs have been held across the country, including events in Joplin and St. Louis.
Raymer and others were guided through the multitude of services at the event by volunteer guides. More than 100 volunteers helped staff the event, said Jenni Miller, co-chair of the Project Homeless Connect Committee.
There were several practical services provided to attendees. For example, there was a career center on site to help attendees gain employment.
"Full-time employment is key," Raymer said. "It's the most essential thing. After you've got that, everything else follows."
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services had a booth where it supplied birth certificates to those in need. There were also shuttles running throughout the day to transport people to the local office of the Missouri Department of Revenue to apply for personal identification. The Columbia Public Library provided applications for library cards, allowing attendees to use homeless shelters as their permanent address.
Other free services provided included HIV/AIDS testing, medical screenings, legal assistance, financial counseling and food, clothing, book, blanket and hygiene product donations. There were also two massage stations, one from Cherry Hill Massage and the other from Riversong Spa & Salon, to help attendees relax and take advantage of a service that is often out of reach.
"It's really important," said Steven Hoeper, massage therapist at Riversong Spa & Salon. "It's not just a luxury like some people see it as. It's a type of preventative health care; by eliminating stress it keeps people out of hospitals. It's nice to help people, and it's a very different type of help from putting a roof on someone's garage."
The haircuts provided by Merrell University of Beauty Arts and Science from Jefferson City and the Academy of Beauty from the St. Louis area were among the most popular services at the event.
"Anytime you get your hair cut it boosts your self-esteem," said Scott Sharp, director of admissions at Merrell University. He also said that a fresh haircut was important for successful job interviews.
One woman at the event, Cheri Ingersoll, said the program was a good way to address the needs of the homeless. Ingersoll was granted housing on Wednesday by the Columbia Housing Authority, ending her seven months of homelessness. She has lived in Columbia for five years.
"Everyone is here out of the goodness of their hearts," Ingersoll said. "You can tell they feel for the homeless. They're not just here to punch that ticket to heaven. They want to create a better community to live in. We need more of this in this town."
Miller, co-chair of the committee that put on the event, said the turnout of both homeless people and volunteers was close to what organizers expected.
"We hope it becomes an annual event," said Heather Bradley-Geary, trust fund and community initiatives manager for the Missouri Housing Development Commission. "It would be nice if an organization in Columbia could sustain it in following years. Then we could continue starting these events throughout Missouri, but that's looking far into the future."
As for Raymer, he said he plans to stay in Columbia for a while and that he recently applied for a job in groundskeeping and maintenance at MU. He said the event shows the Columbia community's willingness to lend a hand.
"People will help you but you just have to ask them," he said.