Valley of the Sun United Way hosted its monthly Project Connect in Gilbert Wednesday, helping more than 200 individuals connect with affordable housing, veterans’ benefits and other social services.
“Project Connect is a one-day outreach event,” said Amy Schwabenlender, Valley of the Sun United Way vice president of community impact.
Homelessness is a regional issue, she said. And it can be experienced in every city and town, even an area like Gilbert.
“They all get grouped as ‘the homeless,' but I like to say ‘experiencing homelessness’ because most will not remain homeless,” Schwabenlender said.
The event is targeted to those experiencing homelessness or those at risk of becoming homeless, Schwabenlender said. It is rotated throughout different cities in the valley each month. Last year, 123 individuals attended the event in Gilbert.
People who attended could also receive free hair cuts, a change of clothing and a shower.
“We’re seeing a lot of people with children,” said Shawna Fellenz, program operations manager at the Chandler Christian Community Center’s Community Action Program. “Before we had a lot of single parents, and now we’re seeing a lot two-parent families.”
CAP, which operates as a safety net, helps people who have exhausted all of their other options and are in the middle of a short-term financial crisis, Fellenz said.
One such family is Trish McCluskey, 23, and Shane Williams, 24, of Mesa, who attended the event looking for help finding work and to obtain maternity clothing.
The two have three children — ages 5, 4 and almost 2 — and are expecting their fourth in December.
McCluskey was fired a month ago after her daughter had pinkeye and was unable to find alternative child care. Two weeks ago, Williams was let go when he unexpectedly had to leave town for a family emergency.
“It really doesn’t matter what it is,” McCluskey said about her job search. “I’m willing to take anything.”
“It’s easier to find a job when you have a job,” Williams added, saying that he could always get a better one once he had a job.
“I have to push myself, some days I don’t want to do it; it’s so much easier to sit on the couch,” McCluskey added.
But pushing herself means providing for her kids, even if that means long hours on the bus or long walks to interview locations, she said. The family leaves the house at 5 a.m. to take public transportation to her eldest daughter’s school with a nearby 24/7 day care for the other children. Most days, they don’t return until nearly 9 p.m.
“They’re my motivator,” she said. “My main motivation is my kids.”
Both McCluskey and Williams were foster children eventually adopted by the families that raised them, they said. As children who were raised in the system, they don’t want their children to end up in the same situation.
Through Save the Family, the Williams-McCluskey family was able to move into a two-bedroom apartment and out of the shelter they were living in after a short stint in their truck.
“They bypassed all of the evictions and have given me a second chance,” McCluskey said of Save the Family. The charity paid their deposit and their first three months rent. Every three months, Save the Family pays less, while the family is expected to take over more of the responsibility after nine months.
It’s a second chance they’re taking full advantage of — and keeping their home and the stability for their children as their top priority, they said.
Looking toward the future, they have a number of goals.
“Basically, I want long-term employment that pays well enough to pay for housing and to not have to worry about their future,” McCluskey said. “And get the heck off of welfare ... I don’t want to be on it. I’m not proud of it, but I still need it. I thought by now, I’d be off it.”
“I want our family to just be comfortable,” Williams said.
“And to finally give back to those agencies who helped us,” McCluskey added.
“The happiest day of my life will be the day I throw down the food stamp card on the counter and say we don’t need it anymore,” Williams said, describing how he tries to hide the card when he uses it at the grocery store.
Because the family doesn’t have a car, Project Connect saved both of them a lot of time.
“To do what we’ve done today, would normally take us two days to do,” Williams said if they had to rely on public transportation to take them to the number of agencies they visited on Thursday. They received job leads and copies of two of their children’s birth certificates.
Despite the tough times their family has gone through, both McCluskey and Williams remain focused on finding their way out of poverty.
“If anyone is in our same predicament, just keep on trying,” Williams said. “Don’t be afraid to swallow your pride (for your kids).”
“I’m willing to do just about anything for my kids,” McCluskey added.
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