Students represent at Project Homeless Connect event

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When Michael Pupiales was a freshman at Colorado State University, he volunteered for Project Homeless Connect, a one-day event providing a broad range of services — haircuts, bicycle repair, medical screenings, veterinary care and more — to people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness.

On that day in spring 2013, he met Curtis, a man he described as an “individual who challenged my perceptions of homelessness in a very big way.”

A bag of blessings

See how the Colorado State University Police Department has teamed up with a high school student to provide the necessities of life to the homeless individuals they encounter every day.

“What it challenged most is that there’s no single story to homelessness,” he continued. “I definitely had stereotypes, perhaps people had mismanaged finances or were drug addicts, the typical, stereotypical image was in my mind. So, what it made me see was the humanity, the more comprehensive perception of homelessness as opposed to a single story.”

Majority of volunteers from CSU

Nearly 400 people volunteered to serve 400 clients at Project Homeless Connect on April 8 this year. Most of them were CSU students recruited through Student Leadership, Involvement and Community, or SLiCE, which has been involved every year since its inception in 2010. Volunteers are matched up with one guest, who they then helped guide through the tables, tents and resource areas at the Northside Aztlan Community Center.

Michael Pupiales Project Homeless Connect 2016
Michael Pupiales, senior at CSU, provides pointers to volunteers.

Also among the CSU volunteers: 23 Doctor of Veterinary Medicine students, one veterinarian technician and two doctors, including Janelle Scott and Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, service chief for Community Practice at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH).

By 10:30 a.m. last Friday, Ruch-Gallie said the team had cared for as many as 25 animals, providing vaccines for cats and dogs, a physical exam and dewormer for dogs. “We had people that showed up before 8 o’clock,” she said. By closing time at 1 p.m., the team had cared for 45 dogs and four cats.

The VTH crew partnered this year with the StreetDog Coalition — founded by Dr. Jon Geller, who graduated from CSU’s veterinary medicine program — to expand services to heartworm tests and other outpatient procedures. Vaccines for rabies, distemper and a feline combination vaccine were donated by Boehringer-Ingleheim, while Zoetis donated a preventive heartworm medication.

Homeless population has strong bond with pets

Ruch-Gallie said that the animals are quite similar to the ones she sees at CSU every day.

“The condition of the dogs is not different than the condition of dogs living in homes,” she said. “In some instances, it is better. The homeless population that have pets, they have a very strong bond with their pet because that is their buddy out on the street with them, all the time.”

As the day progressed, first-year DVM student Malinda DeBell said things were going “great!” She had some experience working with relinquished animals at a shelter in Denver, but said that this was her first time working at Project Homeless Connect.

DeBell raises sheep, but said she wants to eventually work with companion animals. “Cats are really challenging for me, but dogs seem to be okay,” she said, with a smile. She said she tries to sign up for as many volunteer events are her schedule will allow. “I learn best by doing.”

Event challenges stereotypes

Julia Blue Arm, a sophomore studying art and art history, said she heard about Project Homeless Connect through her roommate. “She loves the experience, and said it is really rewarding, so I decided to do it this year,” she said.

volunteer line PHC
A majority of the volunteers were CSU students.

Blue Arm helped one man obtain a bus pass. Overall, she said that she was struck by the real sense of community that she saw among people experiencing homelessness. “They all knew each other,” she said. “They’re friends and they take care of each other. That’s really interesting and something that I hadn’t noticed before.”

Travis Annameier, who graduated from CSU in 2007, said it was the second year for him as a volunteer at Project Homeless Connect. “It’s always eye-opening to see how much variety there is in terms of where people are at, what occupations and lives people have, and that anybody could potentially be a couple of unfortunate life circumstances away from being in the same position.”

Annameier, who majored in finance and is now working in real estate, said one young man he worked with at the event is a full-time student at a local community college who will graduate in May with an associate’s degree.

“We ended up chatting for a while,” he said. “We got into philosophy a little bit, and politics. He talked about how difficult it is to get around town and do things without a car, but at the same time, he’s not cooped up in a car all the time, getting road rage. It was interesting to hear both sides of it.”

These observations are exactly what organizers like to hear. Vanessa Fenley, director of Homeward 20/20, which organizes the event, said it is one of her favorite days of the year.

It takes a village

“We know that homelessness on a day-to-day basis is something that takes incredible collaboration in order to address,” she said. “(At Project Homeless Connect) you see such a perfect visual representation of the amount of collaboration that really is needed in order to make an impact.”

Seeing all of the CSU student volunteers is also heartening, Fenley said. “It’s a great opportunity for a lot of the young adults in our community to have an opportunity to see this critical social issue that they may not have known about or been exposed to before.”

Ruth, 38, who is currently living at Catholic Charities, said that she was impressed to find everything she needed in one place.

“I was always worried about a bus pass,” she said. “I can’t believe how much resources there is for the homeless. It’s really nice and we appreciate it a lot, because it’s a lot of help for some of us who don’t have anything.”

It’s fair to say that the event changes lives on both sides. For Pupiales, who is majoring in Health and Exercise Science, it steered him away from what he thought would be a career in medicine.

“I was stoked about medical school for the longest time,” he said. “But through my work in the community, it helped me identify that I’m more interested in community organizing and grassroots, local movements. I don’t know what that means in terms of a career, but at least I’ve identified what my passion is, so that makes me feel good.”

Interested in learning more about Project Homeless Connect or just curious about how to get involved with it and similar efforts? Join CSU students and community partners for a follow-up workshop on Wednesday, April 13, from 3 to 5 p.m. in Lory Student Center 386.