SALT LAKE CITY — Arya Cunningham said she’s been "stuck" at the Road Home for about seven months, ever since her family kicked her out.
"It’s so difficult to get out of (shelter) once you’re there," said Cunningham, a transgender woman. "I never wanted to be homeless."
The 26-year-old said she applied for housing and financial assistance right when she landed at the downtown shelter, but "seven months later, still nothing."
Cunningham also struggles with multiple behavioral health issues, including anxiety, depression and ADHD, she said, making it difficult for her to hold a steady job.
On top of all that, she’s had a cavity in one of her teeth that has been "excruciatingly painful" for three months, she said.
The cavity was Cunningham’s first order of business when she and her girlfriend, Riley Hunter, 22, went to the Salt Palace Convention Center on Friday for Salt Lake City’s first Project Homeless Connect — a daylong, one-stop event that brought together 90 service providers to help those in need.
Cunningham and Hunter said they met at the shelter several months ago, after Hunter left an abusive relationship and the relatives she was staying with lost their apartment.
Their guide, Margie Strong, sat down with the women when they arrived at 9 a.m. to sort out their top priorities: dental for Cunningham, an eye exam for Hunter, flu shots and vaccines for both of them, clothing vouchers, and inquiries for possible disability assistance and housing.
And if they had time: massages.
"This is huge," Cunningham said, adding that she was "pleasantly surprised" with the range of services.
Arya Cunningham has her teeth looked at by dental hygienist Ellen Christensen and student dental student Emily Worth during Salt Lake City’s first Project Homeless Connect at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, KSL)
In the six hours they were there, Cunningham and Hunter checked off everything on their list with time to spare for back massages. They weren’t able to walk away with disability assistance or housing, but they were happy to get the resources they need to follow up on their applications.
As for that cavity, Cunningham set an appointment for Wednesday to get it taken care of at a free clinic.
"I’m absolutely grateful," she said. "It’s going to make a huge impact."
"All this has been really helpful," Hunter added. "I’m glad this has been put together."
It’s so difficult to get out of (shelter) once you’re there. I never wanted to be homeless.
Strong, a Sandy resident who took Friday off from work to volunteer with Project Homeless Connect, called the event "amazing," adding that Hunter’s and Cunningham’s situations were "heartbreaking."
"I think a lot of people have preconceived notions about homeless people in the community and they judge," she said, "but you just don’t know. It can happen to anybody."
Judging by the number of welcome bags handed out, city officials estimate about 900 people attended Friday’s event.
Thomas Redpipe gets his hair cut by Casey Kinnaman, from City Barbers, at Salt Lake City’s first Project Homeless Connect at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, KSL)
The Salt Lake County Health Department reported it gave 180 hepatitis A shots and 200 flu shots. Eye provider Moran Outreach did 150 vision screenings, and addiction treatment center First Step House worked with 20 individuals and got six people into treatment Friday, the providers reported.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said nearly 600 volunteers helped and the city contributed $20,000 to what she hopes will become an annual event.
"We really are seeing the community come together in a way that says, ‘Everybody is somebody, and we all have work to do. Let us help you succeed,’" Biskupski said. "This help is creating hope, and that hope is creating opportunity — opportunity for people to not just get services but to be acknowledged and actually feel validated, to feel human."
City Councilman Derek Kitchen said he helped four people while volunteering at Friday’s event.
Overall homelessness in Utah was up 7 percent in 2015, according to state figures released Wednesday. Homelessness among families was up 17 percent, which is tied to a tight rental market and unmet needs for affordable housing, state officials say.
"At the end of it, they were all in tears," he said. "It’s really incredible. I think they walked in expecting to get lunch or access to a therapist, but they got flu shots and hepatitis A shots and dental cleanings, their eyes examined. I don’t think they ever realized what they were missing out on. It’s touching."
Kitchen said one woman told him she suffered from depression, and she "promised" herself she would try Project Homeless Connect to see if she could get some help.
"Coming here, she realized, ‘I have to meet people halfway. I’ve got to show up and put in the effort.’ She realized there are support services out there; she just has to show up for it," he said.
Nick Parsons, 46, said he lived on the streets for five years in the Sugar House area because of an addiction to alcohol. He spent six months in Odyssey House, he said, but relapsed.
Now, Parsons is in a new program with Volunteers of America.
I think a lot of people have preconceived notions about homeless people in the community and they judge, but you just don’t know. It can happen to anybody.
"I want to change my life," he said while exploring the services Friday. "This is a game changer for a lot of people."
Homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson was constantly waving to her "homeless friends" as she wandered the Salt Palace. She applauded the city for creating such an "inclusive" event.
"It’s meeting so many needs all in one place," Atkinson said, adding that she’s seen many familiar faces "who have been homeless for many years, but they’re really trying to make an effort to get off the street."
"I don’t think anybody could walk around here and not find some kind of help," she said.