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Settling into its second year at the Shrine Auditorium, a one-day event that provides services to the homeless and near-homeless saw increased attendance Friday.

Last year, having moved to the Shrine after four years on the third floor of the downtown Parmly Billings Library, Project Homeless Connect drew about 400 people, down nearly 200 from a year earlier.

But when the event ended Friday at 4 p.m., 517 people had been served.

It also had a new name this year -- Billings Community Connect. James Hartman, a homeless man who works on the project's board, said he had a lot to do with the name change.

"People have an outlook when they see the word 'homeless,'" he said. "It's like a disease, almost. But when they see the word 'community,' everybody wants to get involved."

That is definitely behind the idea of Billings Community Connect, which is part of a nationwide, one-day, one-stop event that gives people immediate assistance as well as access to help that might move them out of homelessness. 

Karla Maslowski, who runs Health Care for the Homeless for RiverStone Health and co-chaired this year's event, said organizers knew there was a risk in moving the event out of the downtown area, but the library was the biggest space available there and it just wasn't big enough.

"We had outgrown it every way possible," she said. The fear was that they'd lose agencies and volunteers frustrated by the limitations of the cramped quarters.

A new provider this year was Stephen's Stones Ministries, founded by Troy McInnis. He said one of the group's main missions is to provide mentorship, Bible study and other help to the homeless. The group believes in going to the streets and to the rescue mission, not waiting for people to come to them, McInnis said.

"You can't change lives by appointments only," he said.

Stephen's Stones Ministries was one of 49 agencies or service providers that had tables on the main floor of the Shrine, 1125 Broadwater Ave., and 170 volunteers were on hand. The Montana Rescue Mission and the Tumbleweed Runaway Program provided shuttles to pick up people in the Heights at Harvest Church and from Lockwood at Zoe Church.

MET Transit offered free rides on its Broadwater line, with connections all over town, and another shuttle took people down the street for free haircuts at the Academy of Nail, Skin and Hair, 928 Broadwater Ave.

As clients came through the front doors of the Shrine, they were asked to go to intake tables where volunteers helped them fill out a housing status survey. The survey is part of a nationwide head count, Maslowski said, and the most important question was, "Where did you sleep last night?"

From there, clients were asked to visit at least six tables, where agency representatives could mark a punch card. With those in hand, clients were invited to go downstairs for a meal and to pick up some supplies from one-day store stocked with clothing, shoes, hygiene kits and a few other items.

The food and haircuts were offered regardless of how many agencies the clients visited. Thirty gallons of chili was provided by Wendy's of Montana, and the kitchen at the Billings Food Bank contributed big pans of lasagna and pizza. Almost all the food was gone by 1:30.

Gerry Olmstead, an RSVP volunteer running the clothing store at the Shrine, said about half the clothing was new, donated by Wal-Mart and other stores, and half gently used, given by Family Service Inc. The clothing was going fast.

"We are low," Olmstead said a little after 1:30. "We really went through the products. The people were so grateful."

Tom Finn, who was eating one of the last portions of lasagna in the Shrine lunch room, said he was disappointed that he couldn't find a pair of winter boots, but he did pick up some socks, underwear, gloves and a winter hat.

He said he just recently got out of homelessness. He started receiving Social Security payments and the HUB, a service of the Mental Health Center, helped him find a downtown apartment.

"I ended up with nothing after my wife died nine years ago," he said. "I went crazy. I didn't stop drinking for seven years. I went to prison is what happened. That stopped me. That'll do it."

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