Creighton University welcomed 693 people experiencing homelessness in the Omaha and Council Bluffs areas to the Kiewit Fitness Center on Friday for its 12th annual Project Homeless Connect.
The event consolidates over 40 services for the local homeless population including healthcare, dental, eyewear, housing applications, job hunting and legal consultation.
For many guests, this one-day experience provides access to sorely needed resources that are out of reach in their day to day.
“What [guests] do in four hours here would take them six months on their own. Having this available helps save an incredible amount of time and money,” said Katie Miller, a local volunteer at the event.
Project Homeless Connect was launched in 2007 by Creighton alumnus Ed Shada and former University president, the Rev. John P. Schlegel, S.J.
Shada, who currently serves as president for the nonprofit, said that 230 people received aid on launch day. The project now serves over 600 homeless guests annually.
According to Shada, Omaha’s version of Project Homeless Connect is the most unique and successful model nationally, due in large part to Creighton’s participation.
“If we didn’t have Creighton, this event wouldn’t happen,” Shada said. “There’s nowhere else where you can access all these health professionals, social services and students as volunteers.”
This year, approximately 500 volunteers worked as navigators, greeters, transporters and professional service providers for Project Homeless Connect.
“We [allow] people to work one-on-one with someone who is homeless so that [they] get to be united with this person and understand everything they’re going through,” said Shada. “You get to know this person. You become their advocate.”
When asked about his volunteering experience, Payton Jones, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, noted the strong community spirit surrounding the event.
“I think the biggest takeaway for me is just how great the Omaha community is, especially in making sure this event happens and runs smoothly,” said Jones. “It’s just a great thing to see how these people come together to make something truly beautiful.”
Other volunteers shared how their perspectives on homelessness have been shaped by Project Homeless Connect.
Miller, who has volunteered as a navigator for the last 12 years, explained that Project Homeless Connect helped her feel more comfortable encountering and serving individuals experiencing homelessness.
“Having this opportunity to see from their perspective, [to see] how challenging it is and what could be useful to help them has been really useful,” she said.
Monica Reeson, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she felt compelled to ask more questions about homelessness after the event. Her experience also motivated her to continue volunteering with Omaha’s homeless population.
“I want to spend more time with people experiencing homelessness and…understand what kind of barriers are in their way, to hear their stories and form relationships,” Reeson said.