Brandon Carrizales, 33, volunteered at Thursday’s Project Homeless Connect Buffalo, wearing a uniform blue t-shirt and directing homeless people to service providers set up around the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.
Two years ago, he was one of those homeless people attending the event and looking for services.
“In the homeless population, sometimes they just don’t have hope,” he told WBFO. “So (I’m) definitely trying to be an encourager and a supporter, even though I was homeless there with them, like, ‘We can do this, this doesn’t have to be permanent.’”
The 11th annual Project Homeless Connect Buffalo tried to provide hope via a one-stop shop of 96 agencies with information on housing, employment, public assistance and mental health services. Warm clothing, toiletries and haircuts were also provided, and there was even a trailer equipped with private showers parked outside the convention center.
The organizers of the event, the Western New York Coalition for the Homeless, expected approximately 500 people either experiencing homelessness, or at risk of homelessness, to take advantage of the services.
And what services they receive is completely up to them, said Project Homeless Connect Buffalo Chairperson Kathleen Heim.
“So if they’re here for a hot meal and a haircut, we’re thrilled to offer that to them. If they’re here because they’re destitute and they really are looking for a place to stay, we’re very fortunate we’re able to provide those services as well,” Heim said. “But it’s completely client-driven what they’re getting out of the day.”
One service provider at Thursday’s event was the Buffalo City Mission, the region’s largest homeless shelter, which handed out socks, hats and blankets for the Buffalo winter ahead.
The supplies were in high demand, too. About an hour into the event, City Mission workers were already considering going back to their office to get more.
“A lot of people have come up and shared that they don’t have a basic comforter,” said Annette Slaughter, director of the city mission’s Cornerstone Manor for women and children.
According to the latest U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data, there are 957 homeless people in Erie, Niagara, Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties. All but 15 of them stayed in emergency shelters or transitional housing.
However, Slaughter noted many more are at-risk for homelessness, living in housing “not conducive to human habitation.”
“They may be living in housing that doesn’t have any electrify, doesn’t have any gas on, doesn’t have water,” she said.
There’s also homeless youth that don’t necessarily fit into the sheltered or unsheltered categories.
“We have a harder time identifying youth,” said Ken Gholston, chair of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York. “They may not necessarily be in shelters. They might be couch surfing or maybe staying with friends, so they don’t necessarily fall right into the normal homeless system.”
That’s part of the reason Gholston’s organization received a $3.5 million grant from HUD at Thursday's event. The monies, part of a nationwide, $75 million effort to combat youth homelessness, will go toward housing options for people under 25.
“They require different services and these funds will be used to assist in that,” Gholston said.
For Carrizales, he was homeless for nine months in 2017 after he became unemployed and could no longer afford his rent. He slept at emermergy shelters at night and stayed at places like libraries and bus stations during the day.
“It’s kind of hard because you’re hungry and you’re homeless and you’re tired,” he said. “You know what you got to do, but it’s hard.”
He eventually moved back to his native California, but is now back in Buffalo, living in an apartment and working in sales.
He encourages people to not ignore the homeless.
“Even if it’s just a word of encouragement,” he said. “Even if it’s a dollar, a hot cup of coffee. Just do something.”