'It’s hard all year round': Rochester partners help people experiencing homelessness
Project Community Connect also brings people together for the point-in-time count, which is a federal count of people experiencing homelessness.
ROCHESTER — Jolene Burchard tries to “keep going” as she wonders about her income being enough to pay her utility bills.
She lives on Social Security Disability Insurance and is waiting to see if energy assistance will come through in time.
“I was going to see if I get could help with either my utilities or rent this month because I get Social Security and I only get $931,” Burchard said. “And both RPU and Minnesota Energy I’m way behind so I’m not going to be able to cover all of it when I get my Social Security.”
“It’s hard all year round. I’ve been homeless before a few times,” Burchard said. “My life was a mess back then. I try to do what I can now, you know, keep it together.”
Burchard was one of the people attending Friday's Project Community Connect event at John Marshall High School. The event, organized by Homeless Community Network of Olmsted County, involved volunteers and nonprofit charity organizations in helping provide some nontraditional, but still essential services to people who are homeless or in financial need.
For free, people could get lunch, receive a haircut, get a photo ID, get a flu shot, get help with legal services and get help finding a job.
In addition, tax assistance and help staving off mortgage foreclosures was available.
Buchard lives with health issues and receives dialysis care. On Friday, she visited the self-care booths, including a foot massage, manicure and haircut. She laughed with the Winona State University student as she learned she could have both baby blue and sparkle nail polish.
“I got to keep pushing forward because I’m fighting for my life every day,” Burchard said. “And I try to stay positive. This stuff ain’t going to beat me.”
Adrienne Gathwright is thankful for her prayers being answered, such as having a new pair of boots to wear, having an apartment for two years and helping other people who are experiencing homelessness. The free resources at the event are aspects to praise the Lord for, Gathwright said.
“This helps me as well after I get back home I can get on my knees and say, ‘Lord, thank you.’ He heard our prayers. I wasn’t the only one, I know,” Gathwright said.
She also came searching for mental health care, such as at Fernbrook Family Center, after noticing she was becoming “outraged” and crying often due to the loss of her family.
“I lost all my family, except for a sister and a brother. And I’m here in Rochester all alone. I’m not lonely and I’m not alone because Jesus is in the spirit and in the flesh,” Gathwright said. “I miss them so much, I really do.”
“(I’m getting information on) mental health in care to visit me at home instead of me having to come out all the time because I got plantar fasciitis in my feet it hurts if I walk too long,” Gathwright said. “I have a chair that I push but didn’t bring it because of the snow. They don’t really clean the snow and the ice off the sidewalks and all like that.”
With his backpack, tote bag and colorful skateboard, Colin Johnson focused his search on housing. “I’m probably going to check on housing because I loose my housing in six days,” he said. He’s lived in GRH Housing for about seven months.
“This is just more like a house so we have just bedrooms and some of them are singles and some of them are shared rooms,” Johnson described. “I’m in one of the shared rooms and my roommate drives me absolutely crazy every day.”
Johnson and his roommate need to move due to their fighting. He’s connected with The Landing MN and other housing options he knows in the area. But with the requirements and wait lists, Johnson said “what it sounds like is pretty much just wait until I’m actually on the street.” He hopes “(housing) will work out. If not, I’m adept to the street.”
He previously camped in a tent for a year and a half. The winter days “can be cold. Push a shopping cart with bedding,” Johnson said. He sometimes uses hand sanitizer from The Landing to create a fire in his tent.
“Hopefully I’m just going to get a job and I don’t have to worry about all that. Just get a job and return to ‘normal’ living,” Johnson said. “But I still have a driver’s license that should be helpful, help get me a job.”
With adults, youth and kids experiencing homelessness or struggling to make ends meet, Project Community Connect also brings people together for the point-in-time count , which is a federal count of people experiencing homelessness. Amber Fiedler, assistant professor at Winona State University and member of the Homeless Community Network of Olmsted County, said before the event started in 2009 they would count people under bridges, in parks and on the streets.
“It’s hard to talk to people at like midnight when they’re trying to sleep and it’s cold,” Fiedler said. “Between counting people here and counting at the shelters, we think that we’re accessing most everybody.”
The federal count will include people who are couch surfing for the first time this year, and “there’s a lot of people actually doing that,” Fiedler said.
While the event was smaller returning for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, people came for employment, housing and food. The partnerships help people who are struggling as well as help vendors and nursing students learn more about people’s experiences with homelessness.
“These nurses will probably go work in acute care, they will go work in a hospital but they will know where resources are,” Fiedler said. “They will be able to speak to their patients about, ‘I know where you can look for housing or let’s connect legal services to see if they can find you money to stay.’ My students in the hospital will have a good handle on how to find resources for their patients who are struggling.”