An event to connect people experiencing homelessness to mentors and services packed an extra punch this year

Project Homeless Connect Denver served 144 veterans on Thursday.
4 min. read
From left to right, Brandy Morrison of the VA health care system; Rob Bingham of the Colorado Veterans Project, Matthew Dixon-Moran of VFW Post 2461 and Khristie Barker of the VA at Project Homeless Connect Denver on Oct. 10, 2019. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Depressed and feeling he had failed after being medically and honorably discharged from the Air Force, Matthew Dixon-Moran ended up on the streets for a few years.

"I finally got in touch with the right people," said Dixon-Moran, who now commands Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2461. "It just takes talking to that one person that can make a difference."

On Thursday he was hoping to be that person for someone experiencing homelessness. His South Denver VFW post had teamed up with the Denver Veterans Affairs hospital and the nonprofit Colorado Veterans Project for the first "homeless veterans stand down" -- an event where unhoused vets can get linked to services, food and supplies -- to be held in conjunction with the annual Project Homeless Connect Denver.

For decades, annual stand downs at the National Guard Armory in north Denver have brought together the VA and other agencies to support veterans experiencing homelessness. The stand down is usually held within weeks of Project Homeless Connect Denver, which takes place at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver and since 2006 has provided a range of services for all who may be experiencing homelessness.

Chris Conner, director of the city agency Denver's Road Home that coordinates homelessness services, said the idea of holding the stand down and his project together first came up a few years ago when they were by chance scheduled on the same day. Conner said converging the events should make it easier for veterans to connect with services, and for service providers who might have found it a stretch to contribute to both. He said he hoped the partnership would continue.

Khristie Barker, a public affairs and community outreach specialist for VA health care systems in eastern Colorado, also was looking to the future.

"What we're trying to do this year is figure out how we can do better next year," she said.

By the end of the day, 1,570 had visited the convention center for the event, and among them 144 veterans were served, organizers said.

Officials from the VA and other agencies offered connections to housing, mental health and help navigating military benefits at Project Homeless Connect Denver on Oct. 10, 2019. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

Rob Bingham, executive director and founder of the Colorado Veterans Project, said holding the events at the same time saves money for organizers of both and brings the veterans under a comprehensive umbrella. Project Homeless Connect Denver has a roster of providers that includes employers conducting job interviews; nonprofits offering pet care; city and state agencies providing housing; professional organizations donating eye exams and glasses. Officials from the VA and other agencies offered connections to housing, mental health and help navigating military benefits at tables in the stand-down area.

Project Homeless Connect Denver's signature service may be one-on-one mentoring. Volunteer mentors in yellow T-shirts were there for everyone Thursday. A volunteer is paired with one person who came to the convention center seeking help. The mentors, who can offer advice or just a friendly ear to participants, went from table to table in the general area and in a space the size of a tennis court roped off for veterans.

The VA's Barker was struck by the "sea of yellow" she saw at the volunteer check-in desks Thursday morning. She heard a cheer from the volunteers when an announcement was made about the stand down area.

"That gave me a little bit of a goosebump," she said.

Dixon-Moran was sitting at a table in the stand-down area when he met a veteran who was behind on his rent and had recently received an eviction notice. It was the kind of emergency Dixon-Moran had had in mind when, in preparation for Project Homeless Connect, he had applied for a grant from the state's Veterans Trust Fund. The VFW commander set to work arranging to use some of the grant to help the veteran, who had five children.

"Hopefully we can get him set up for success and help him to stay in their home,"Dixon-Moran said. "I don't want to see anybody on the streets. I've been there."

Dixon-Moran, who left the Air Force in 1999 after 12 years, said his own life was back on track. He and his husband have two young children. Dixon-Moran, a Housing and Urban Development auditor, has led VFW Post 2461 for the last two years.

Correction: The last name of the commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2461 was incorrect in the original version of this story. He is Matthew Dixon-Moran.

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