Project Homeless Connect providing services for needy

Robert Taylor says problems with alcohol cost him his job as a city laborer four years ago. He quit drinking, but without a permanent source of income or place to stay, it's been difficult for him to get back on his feet.

He's held a few odd jobs, but without a car, the 52-year-old Taylor says he's struggled to navigate the red tape associated with housing and job assistance, which advocates say is a common problem for people in troubled financial circumstances.

"I'm just trying to do the right things," he said.

On Thursday, the city of Baltimore and the United Way of Central Maryland gathered support providers at the Baltimore Convention Center in an effort to help needy people overcome the obstacles to economic recovery.

About 1,200 people came to Project Homeless Connect, a daylong event that offered services including financial assistance, legal help, medical and dental care, employment help and options to collect important documents such as birth certificates and identification cards.

The event was modeled after a similar United Way initiative officials discovered during a business trip to Denver; they later learned it was done is several cities across the country.

"What we're trying to do here is take care of basic human needs," said Mark Furst, president and CEO of United Way of Central Maryland, who added that the service providers collect customer information for follow-ups.

Long lines wound around the convention center before the 10 a.m. start time. Organizers said that many people were waiting outside the doors at 6 a.m., and others reported camping out overnight.

But the turnout reflects only a small part of the homeless population in Baltimore.

According to city estimates, there are more than 4,000 homeless people, including children, on any given night in Baltimore.

A 2013 study conducted by the Mayor's Office of Human Services found that the rate of homelessness in Baltimore is more than three times that of the state as a whole. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's definition of homelessness includes those on the streets or in shelters and transitional housing — along with those at imminent risk.

Carrie Cauley, 41, came to Project Homeless Connect to get legal advice on a custody dispute.

While Cauley was there, she also sought treatment for a tooth that had been troubling her for a "long time." She said it had been years since she received dental care.

Tooth extractions were among the most popular offerings at the event. The fair featured four vans that served as dental clinics.

"The people that come here, they're in a lot of pain," said Lauren Aguilar, a third-year student at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry who was assisting at the event. "The extractions really help out with that."

Gabby Knighton, outreach coordinator for the Mayor's Office of Human Services, said it took about a year to plan Project Homeless Connect. It featured about 1,000 volunteers, mainly college students, and more than 110 service providers.

"This is the biggest thing we do to draw people in, Knighton said. "It's important to show people that we care."

nadavis@baltsun.com