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Homeless event draws 100s
Tiffany Kelker, with Montana State University Billings' Center for Disabilities, talks with a person looking for services at Project Homeless Connect Thursday at Parmly Billings Library.

According to the Mayor's Committee on Homelessness, about 650 homeless people are in Billings on any given day.

Nearly 450 of them came to Parmly Billings Library on Friday for the third annual Project Homeless Connect, an event that provides one-stop access to services, food and assistance to homeless or near-homeless people.

"A lot of people are not aware of the services that are available in Billings," said Joe Chalupa, director of The HUB and Project Homeless Connect's co-chair.

This year's event featured tables from 47 local providers, most of whom provided services in-kind, including dental appointments, haircuts, mental-health services, legal services, education opportunities and clothing. While the previous two events have provided clothing to Billings' homeless, this year brought a new aspect to it.

Across the street in the gymnasium on the second floor of the Lincoln Center, 18 racks, 12 tables and dozens of boxes of clothes, hygiene supplies and toys were laid out for those attending Project Homeless Connect to take what they needed. To gain access to the gym, all they had to do was visit six services at the library.

Shortly before 5 p.m., participants had gone through about 150 boxes, and only three racks and a handful of boxes of clothes remained.

"If they can use it, if they need it, they can have it," said Paul Chinberg, director of the Mayor's Committee on Homelessness.

Organizers hope this year's event will help provide more state and federal funding for homeless services in Billings. Miranda Dye, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with the city of Billings, said only about 10 percent of the money the state receives for homelessness comes to Billings, while about half goes to Missoula.

This year's Project Homeless Connect coincided with the Montana Housing Status Survey, which helps determine how much money each area in the state receives from the federal government each year. Every person who attended Project Homeless Connect was asked to fill out a survey that provides information on their status and living situation.

Dye said last year's survey counted 432 homeless people in Billings but that "we have many more than that." There are two homeless projects in Billings, Shelter Plus Care and Harmony House, and Dye said she hopes that holding the survey during the event will provide a more accurate count for federal funding.

"The more money we can bring in, the more services we can provide," she said.

A 2007 study performed by the Mayor's Committee on Homelessness stated that about 2,000 homeless people pass through the city in a year. It said that, on average, each homeless person costs the community $15,534 each year. Those costs include emergency and transitional shelters, jail, mental-health services, hospital stays and chemical dependency services. It costs more than $31 million per year to serve the total homeless population, according to the report.

"We do not guarantee that this one-day event, this one large resource, will get rid of homelessness," Dye said. "It is not going to change that. But if we can help a few people, it's already worth it."

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