Greater Williamsburg expo needs more hands to help homeless

The Virginia Gazette

WILLIAMSBURG — Hands Together Historic Triangle is consolidating community resources under one roof next month to meet the needs of greater Williamsburg residents who are homeless or without permanent housing.

Errands, like getting glasses or dropping off paperwork, are as easy as jumping in the car for most people. For low-income or homeless individuals it can be a major challenge. Volunteer Natalie Miller-Moore said just following through on a doctor's appointment can be difficult when transportation is an issue, and applying for services through a city or county can seem impossible if it takes multiple visits, which means multiple bus rides.

The idea started in 2012 with LEAD Historic Triangle, a class through the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance that helps emerging leaders network and learn about the community. Each class performs a community project. The Class of 2012 coined their effort "Hands Together."

"We needed a way to get services in one place, so people who needed them could come and get them," said Miller-Moore, a member of the 2012 class. To meet the needs of hundreds of clients, Hands Together is seeking additional providers and volunteers for this year's event, particularly professional services. She said they welcome any organization, group or even clubs.

Bi-lingual volunteers, specifically Spanish speakers, are also in high demand. Greg Ashley, pastor of CrossWalk Church in Norge, explained that last year there was a large influx of people for whom English was a second language. Donations of food, new clothing, and hygiene items are also being accepted at approximately 20 sites through the greater Williamsburg area.

Sharon Gibson-Ellis, executive director of the United Way of Greater Williamsburg and a member of the 2012 LEAD class, said the mission was twofold. Not only did they want to create a one-stop shop in greater Williamsburg where homeless and people without permanent housing could find the resources and services, but they wanted educate the public about homelessness.

"Homelessness doesn't always look the same," she said. "It looks a little bit different in Williamsburg."

In greater Williamsburg, "homeless" doesn't necessarily mean sleeping on the streets. Ellis said while some people do camp in homeless communities, others sleep in hotels or in their cars. Ashley said the issue affects hundreds of students throughout the area, many of whom catch the school bus from local hotels where their families live.

Since it's inception, Hands Together has worked to add services to the community resource fair. Gibson-Ellis believes the offerings have been fine-tuned as they've discovered what's most in demand.

During the one-day event held at Quarterpath Recreation Center, there is a store full of food, toiletries, household items, clothing and gift cards available to those in need, according to Miller-Moore. Hot meals are provided at breakfast and lunch, and volunteer navigators walk each individual or family through a marketplace of services, including medical and legal, bike repair, haircuts and social services for Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Last year 240 people were served, though organizers say that figure overlooks additional family members that one person may represent.

Gibson-Ellis said United Way staff and volunteers act as intake officers, speaking with clients at the Hands Together event and asking them questions to better determine the services they need and prioritize them. She noted United Way takes on that role because they are already familiar with many of the clients.

The co-location of medical services with other resources is a big benefit, Gibson-Ellis said. Among the services offered are flu shots, HIV testing, checks for sexually transmitted diseases and blood pressure screenings.

"Many times people who are low income walk around with health issues they may not know about," she said.

She and Ashley recalled that at last year's event a doctor observed stroke-level blood pressures in two clients and was able to send them to the hospital for treatment.

Referrals are a big part of the resource fair. Ashley said community partners can refer someone and provide them with a "Save the Date" card and bus pass to get to the event. Once they are at the event, they can make appoints with provides who will give them "Save the Date" cards for appointments and additional bus passes to ensure they get there on that day.

Ashley also noted that shuttle services will be available at 10 sites locally, including Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center, the James City County Library, the Pineapple Inn and the Econo Lodge on Bypass Road. Vans will carry people to and from the event from 10 a.m. until the last person leaves.

Want to go? Hands Together Historic Triangle will be held 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 23. For more information or to volunteer, visit http://www.handstogetherhistorictriangle.com.

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