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Project Homeless Connect in Harford County offers array of services for people in need

Michael Lee was able to get a dental exam, treatment for a chipped tooth and a printout of his birth certificate. His girlfriend, Amanda Kahl, who is pregnant and is due in April, got a prescription for new glasses, baby supplies, and hats and coats for her other three children.

All of those supplies and services, which were available free of charge — and many others — were available to people in need during Harford County’s fourth annual Project Homeless Connect event Thursday at the APG Federal Credit Union Arena at Harford Community College.

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The county government and United Way of Central Maryland partnered to put on the event, with support from HCC, the Maryland State Dental Association, Healthy Harford/Healthy Cecil, Harford Mutual, Wells Fargo Advisors, Jones Junction, Pat’s Pizzeria, DentaQuest, the Maryland Office of Oral Health and other sponsors.

“Harford County needs more stuff like this,” Lee, 27, said of the event while he waited for his cleaning and tooth extraction, performed by dental professionals volunteering their services.

A dental clinic, staffed with dentists, hygienists and assistants, had been set up on one part of the arena floor, while the rest of the floor was filled with tables used by an array of other providers of services such as medical care, legal assistance, identity documents and energy assistance, plus groceries, toiletries, winter clothing, even pet supplies.

A vision clinic, staffed by volunteer eye care professionals, was set up in an interior corridor and various offices. Visitors could also take a shuttle across Thomas Run Road to Harford Technical High School to get haircuts from students.

Lunch was provided at the event, along with child care. Transportation to the college’s Bel Air campus was provided by the Harford Transit LINK bus system.

All goods and services were provided free of charge.

“[There is] no cost for admission, no cost for services,” said Renee Beck, associate vice president of marketing and communications for the United Way of Central Maryland.

“It’s just a great event to connect people to the resources, all in one place at one time,” said Len Parrish, director of community and economic development for Harford County and chair of the Harford County/United Way partnership board.

He said the goal is to break down barriers keeping people in need from accessing the appropriate services. If guests could not obtain a good or service at the event Thursday, they could set up a time to get them at a later date.

“We want to connect you with the resource so you can get it when you leave here,” Parrish said.

About 300 guests had arrived as of 11 a.m. Thursday, and about 450 were expected by the end of the event at 2:30 p.m., according to Cecilia Helmstetter, director of business development for the United Way and a founder of Project Homeless Connect in Harford County. The United Way of Central Maryland operates a similar program in Baltimore City that started six years ago.

The Harford County Project Homeless Connect was initially held in the Epicenter in Edgewood, according to Helmstetter.

“We would love to help as many people as we can with the services that they need,” she said.

On the ‘economic borderline’

Rob Sargent, a member of the 14-person partnership board, noted a significant portion of Harford County’s population of about 250,000 lives at or below the federal poverty line.

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He said they live paycheck-to-paycheck, struggle to build financial reserves, and must make hard choices such as getting their vehicle fixed or buying food for their families.

“All of these people are living right on that economic borderline,” Sargent said.

The United Way puts out an ALICE report — short for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed — chronicling the number of households that earn above the federal poverty level in a community, but below the “basic cost of living,” according to Beck. She said 24 percent of Harford’s population meets the ALICE level, based on data from 2016.

First-year volunteer Melissa Reavis, of Forest Hill, interacted with people waiting to be seen at the vision clinic, answering their questions and guiding them through the clinic.

She works as a marketing specialist for APG Federal Credit Union; she said she was glad her employer gave her the opportunity to volunteer Thursday.

Reavis said it takes about two hours for one person to cycle through the vision clinic, and she heard concerns from some guests about whether they would have enough time to go through the clinic and check into other services offered at the arena.

“A lot of people are here for more than one service,” she said.

Reavis said her experience had been “eye opening,” as she was able to see the level of need in Harford County.

“It’s nice to see that the community comes together,” she said.

Dr. Jason Sober is an optometrist with Advanced Eye Care in Bel Air, and he operates a private practice, Sober Family Eye Care, in Perry Hall. The Fallston resident said this year is his third volunteering with the vision clinic.

He said the eye care professionals provide much of their own equipment, though the United Way has also purchased some pieces and budgets some funds for more equipment each year.

He saw about 35 patients last year, he said, and the clinic served about 120 people total.

Sober said he could serve the community by contributing money to United Way, but he thinks it is even better to volunteer in person.

“I think more people get helped, more gets done, and it’s more satisfying that way, too,” he said.

Patient Corey Washburn, 27, traveled from Elkton to attend the clinic, with transportation provided by the Cecil County Health Department. He has been homeless since age 18 and is currently living in a shelter through Cecil’s rotating shelter program.

Washburn has been working for about a month and a half to two months at a salt dome in the Port of Wilmington in Delaware and in snow removal services in Philadelphia.

He attended Project Homeless Connect in Harford last year, and obtained a Social Security card and a birth certificate.

“I haven’t worn them in years, so it’s about time I get me some glasses,” Washburn said.

He also hoped to get his record expunged Thursday, as it has been difficult to find work with a criminal record and an inconsistent living situation.

“It’s actually pretty damn helpful,” he said of Project Homeless Connect.

Couple Michael Lee and Amanda Kahl live with Kahl’s parents in Joppa. Lee works in the construction field, specializing in finishing concrete — he currently works with the 1-800-GOT-JUNK trash removal service, as it is too cold to set concrete.

Lee said he last saw a dentist in middle school, but he said he was told his teeth were in good condition considering he has not seen a dentist in 14 years. He credits it to brushing twice a day and avoiding sugar.

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He could not, however, be treated for his chipped tooth when he visited a hospital emergency room because he does not have insurance.

Kahl, 32, is not currently working. Her son, with Lee, is due in April — it will be his first child and her fourth. She said Project Homeless Connect, with all services under one roof, is “very helpful.”

Her partner agreed.

“It’s more [efficient] than just the old-fashioned way, Googling and calling and making appointments,” Lee said.

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