Project Homeless Connect: extending a hand to residents in need

Steven Kirkland of Durham told photographer Elise Holsonback that he wants to serve in the U.S. Congress. Student photographers from the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill helped provide free photo portraits for the attendees at the Project Homeless Connect event, Friday, Oct. 2. The photo booth was led by Mark Dolejs of the Henderson Daily Dispatch, with technical support from Durham Herald-Sun photojournalist Christine Nguyen.

For a few hours on a rainy Friday, the community helped Durham Bulls Athletic Park open its doors to some of the residents who needed it most.

Oct. 2 marked the 9th annual Project Homeless Connect, where individuals experiencing homelessness could come in to receive mental health and dental care, as well as information on housing, employment and legal resources.

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R. Dennis Brodie told photographer Evan Schmidt that in spite of his circumstances, he feels blessed, explaining, “If you ain’t happy, it don’t count. What’s the good of being rich if you ain’t happy? Happy covers everything.”

“It was great,” said guest Isra Grimes, who had recently moved to Durham and was referred to the event by the Lincoln Center, an organization providing health care services to underserved individuals. “America is the greatest country in the world. We provide for the homeless and the needy,” he said.

In addition to requesting volunteers, event organizers asked residents and business owners of Durham to donate personal hygiene supplies like soap, shampoo and shaving cream to be distributed to guests at the end of the event.

According to a 2015 count done by the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, there are 813 people experiencing homelessness in Durham — a number that’s steadily been on the rise as the city continues to grow.

Donna Biederman, an assistant professor at the Duke School of Nursing, said the event was a great opportunity for everyone involved. Project Homeless Connect receives volunteer nursing students; this year hosted 70, with approximately that many guests in attendance, Biederman said.

And in turn, the students get an experience to see firsthand the “social determinants of health” — how lack of food, shelter and other necessities influences one’s well being, she said.

The partnership with PHC has been incorporated as an official part of the curriculum for first-semester nursing students, who serve as escorts for guests. They’re paired for the full event, accompanying guests both at lunch and at all care and services they need.

Monica Daeges, a PHC escort and Duke nursing student, was paired with Isra Grimes for the day.

“He’s a great guy, and we had a really great time,” she said. “You try not to have stereotypes, but you still have biases, and it’s really good to confront those with an actual human being.”

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K.C. Johnson, who moved to Durham six months ago from Wilmington, told photographer Tiffany Fuller that he wants to be a famous rock star. So he struck this pose.

She said she wants to focus on public health, connecting with the community and participating in outreach events similar to PHC.

“I think this reinforced that I wanted to do this,” she said. “I think it’s always good when you think you want to do something, and you show up to do it and you love it.”

Biederman said that although the experience is rewarding for many, it can also be a challenge for the students.

“It’s hard because … you connect emotionally with the person you’re with,” Biederman said. “And I think sometimes it’s hard to break that — knowing you spent the day here with them, and now they have to go back out into the environment and you get to go home. We help the students process that.”

Patricia Murray, who performed at the event under her stage name DJ Piddipat, said the highlight of the event was as simple as noticing people in need and providing them a moment of happiness how she could.

“People like songs from their past, especially if they’re going through a hard time, music from when they were kids makes them real happy,” she said.

Murray said her repertoire ranged from pop to music from the Solomon Islands. But when asked what her favorite song was, she didn’t hesitate for second.

“I like it when people dance to my music,” she said. “So if it happens to be R&B, pop, reggae, whatever, then that’s my favorite song at the moment.”

Right in time, Grimes offered a chance to prove her right. He jumped in.

“Superstar, Usher. Confessions album.”

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They identified themselves as simply “Greg and Jaime. (Staff photo by Alex Allison)

Without hesitation, Murray went to YouTube and queued it up. Grimes said that as someone who had only been living in Durham for two weeks, the resources of the event were some welcome help.

“I needed some health care and assistance in some areas, so I came out to seek that,” he said. “I got some dental care. I got some eye care. Monica was my escort; she was great. She was a big help to me.”

As the end the event winded down and people finished packing up, Murray offered up why so many people believe Project Homeless Connect is important for the community.

“It makes me happy to see people getting help,” she said. “Because in Durham — I’m from Chicago, and you see homeless people everywhere — but here, they’re invisible. They’re easy to forget in a place like Durham.”


Caption goes here for Claire Collins interviewing. (Staff photo by Jock Lauterer)

Iraq War vet Teddy Jones tells UNC-Chapel Hill student photographer Claire Collins how he has struggled with PTSD. (Staff photo by Jock Lauterer)