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Summer Connect: A novel way to engage clients and community

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Picture this: you have no home, no identification, no wallet, no phone, no vehicle, no computer access, no food in your belly. There are services in your neighbourhood that can help, but how do you reach them? And how can they get in touch with you when you don’t have a phone number or a fixed address?

These are the problems that thousands of homeless Canadians face, and the Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver recently tackled these issues by hosting an event called Summer Connect in June.

During Summer Connect, 35 service providers convened in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to offer a wide range of assistance to some of the country’s most disadvantaged citizens. Many of the service providers hailed from the housing sector, but the one-day event also included meals, haircuts, health care services, legal advice, bike and wheelchair repair, and more. It was a one-stop shop, where clients not only had access to a panoply of services, but also the chance to connect with outreach workers.

This was the first time UGM has hosted an event like this. They modelled Summer Connect after similar events that take place in the fall during Homelessness Action Week, plus UGM looked south of the border to cities like San Francisco for guidance.

The impetus for Summer Connect sprang from talking to clients and discovering how many barriers there are to securing basic needs.

“It can take months to go from homeless to housed,” says Derek Weiss, UGM’s manager of community engagement, who coordinated the event, “and a huge part of that is being in waiting rooms, remembering appointments, getting phone calls, having voice mail for your phone calls. There are so many places people can fall through the cracks. And nothing kills hope like bureaucracy and frustration. To have one event where people can hit service providers all at once can save months of time. So when someone's ready, they have access to all that right in front of them.”

Finding solutions

Damian Murphy, an outreach worker at The Kettle, has organized eight events like Summer Connect since 2007 and worked with UGM to plan the day’s logistics. He says these kinds of events are extremely important for clients.

“It reinforces relationships,” he says. “The more connections that folks have with the people that provide the services, the more they're going to come and trust those people.”

Average attendance at connect events range from four to five hundred people. Summer Connect organizers and service providers were stunned when more than 1,200 attendees stopped by to chat, eat a meal and soak up the festive atmosphere, which included a three-piece band.

“The attendance was much larger than I thought it would be,” says Bill Briscall, communications manager at RainCity Housing, one of the participating service providers. “It was really busy. I didn’t stop talking.”

A key element to Summer Connect’s success was providing tangible, direct action for clients. More than simply an information fair, clients were able to access government agencies and check their status on wait lists, fill out application forms on the spot or gain immediate legal advice.

Hey, you’ve got a friend in me

The tone driving Summer Connect was one of respect, friendship and courtesy. Clients had the chance to tell their stories (and be heard), and surmount some of the barriers they struggle with.

“Everybody needs a friend. For all the amazing community in the Downtown Eastside, there is a lot of loneliness, too,” says Weiss. “Some people are determined enough that they can do it on their own. But it's just exhausting. What we're doing at Summer Connect is asking ourselves, how would we like to be treated? How would we like things set up if this was me, or my friend, or my child?”

And that’s exactly the mindset service provider Matt Pregent arrived with. As the owner of Wheelin’ Mobility, and in a wheelchair himself, he knows what it’s like to be stuck in a chair that doesn’t work.

“It was great to just be there and listen to people, because they have stories to tell. Some of them have gone through tough times,” he says. “I think about what it would be like to be in their shoes, and I couldn't imagine it. The basic repairs that I did at the event were easy for me. They took me no time, but they made the people that came to us so happy; it made their day.”

A chance to bond with other service providers

One of the most valuable aspects of Summer Connect occurred before the event even began. Before UGM opened its doors, participating service providers spent an hour and a half meeting with one another, sharing challenges and successes, and building connections.

“I firmly believe that folks in charities love their cause so much that they don't pick their heads up long enough to look around and have conversations with each other,” says Weiss. “Our heads are down, and we're focused on our cause or our people, so we're just not growing like we could grow.”

Despite the packed crowd, service providers who weren’t able to meet prior to the event still had the chance to chat.

“It's really important to be involved in events like this where you are seeing the other services, because often folks are just talking to people over the phone,” says Briscall. “It's nice to meet them face to face. It feels like there's a good vibe that we're all working together to address this, and that feels good, too.”

Summer Connect was so successful that UGM anticipates planning the event again next year, and hopes that it will inspire the nonprofit and public sectors to re-examine some of the ways they help clients.

“It's a look in the mirror,” Weiss says. “It forces us to look back on our whole system of service provision and to ask ourselves if this works so well, why aren't we doing it every day?”

How to initiate your own Connect event

Interested in holding a connect event in your community? We’ve got you covered. Here are a few ways to get you started:

Consult reference manuals. There are great resources that already exist to help you on your way. Weiss recommends the Project Homeless Connect Step by Step Guide, by the Interagency Council on Homelessness, and BC Project Homeless Connect: A Manual for BC Communities (http://stophomelessness.ca/resources/project-homeless-connect-manual/).

Find a diversity of service providers that are willing to offer direct action. Connect events are more than info fairs where you hand out brochures. Hold high expectations of your participants and ask them to provide something concrete to clients.

Location, location, location. Hold your event in a neighbourhood where your clientele already hang out. “Homeless folks often have big trust issues and they have to fight for everything, so going to unfamiliar territory is dangerous,” says Weiss.

Plan your outreach strategies. You want to reach your audience, so target them directly. Poster the neighbourhood, or hand out postcards. Summer Connect organizers hit shelters, low income housing, community centres, needle exchanges, health clinics and more to spread the word.

Make the time for service providers to connect. Assisting clients is definitely the main point of the event, but it’s also important for service providers to meet one another and share their struggles.

Keep the atmosphere light and festive. We’ve all sat in a government waiting room before, and it’s not especially fun. Include music or entertainment to create a positive vibe that will brighten a client’s day.

Offer good, nutritious food. Everyone has a better frame of mind when their bellies are satisfied. Providing healthy meals will make your event more appealing to clients. “We say they come for the food, and they stay for the services,” Murphy says.

Request sponsorship outside of the social service sector. Look to local businesses or financial institutions and see if they’d like to give back to the community. You never know unless you ask!

Ask for support from your local government. In some US cities, connect events are backed by governments and the police. Meet with your city’s mayor and ask him or her to throw support (and maybe a few resources) your way.

Video recap of the event, click here.

Sondi Bruner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist, holistic nutritionist and food blogger. Find out more about her writing services at www.sondibruner.com, and explore vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes on her food blog, The Copycat Cook.

Photos (from top) via Andrew Taran, Union Gospel Mission. All photos used with permission.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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marina@charityvillage.com marina@charityvillage.com
I love this idea! I think it's important that we start looking at more holistic approaches to complex issues - and it's great to see organizations working together on this. Bravo!
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