Polly Wyke didn’t plan to spend her golden years on the street, but that’s where she ended up. It all started eight years ago, when she and her husband went through a nasty divorce.
“Things didn’t happen correctly, and I lost my house,” she said. Unable to afford the East Bay’s skyrocketing rents, she became homeless. Although Wyke is usually able to find a warm bed and meal at a shelter or a friend’s place, she misses the stability and comfort of her own home.
Wyke’s story is not unique. In fact, she said that she considers herself lucky. There are more than 1,700 people living without homes in Contra Costa County, according to records, and every night, shelters are at full capacity.
It's a problem that Contra Costa's homeless services have been battling for years, with some degree of success. Data shows that homelessness has slowly been on the decline in the past decade, perhaps in part due to the newly established coordination of housing, health and rehabilitation organizations.
Project Homeless Connect, an annual event for homeless and low-income populations, is a reflection of that joint effort. The 11th iteration took place Thursday and saw more than 600 people, including Wyke, shuttled to the Antioch Fairgrounds, where service providers gathered as a one-stop shop for critical resources.
The event visits different cities each year, with more than 50 care providers on site.
The Department of Motor Vehicles provided identification cards and registered new voters. The county’s animal services department administered vaccinations and handed out free food and collars to pet owners, while dentists and doctors gave examinations to people who hadn’t had them in years. Volunteers were seen giving haircuts and even washing feet.
For organizers, the event is the culmination of months of planning.
“This is a one-day, one opportunity for us to bring together a lot of life-saving services to people in need in order to help them,” said Lavonna Martin, the homeless services chief at Contra Costa Health Services. “We’ve been doing this since 2006, and every year it’s gotten bigger and bigger and our reach has been tremendous.”
At around 8 a.m., lines snaked around the fairgrounds as people waited for warm pancakes and fresh apples. Antioch Mayor Wade Harper and Assemblyman Jim Frazier kicked off the event, both talking to a growing crowd about the importance of county services and introducing some of the day's offerings. The event ran until 3 p.m.
Many of those who attended dropped their pets off at a makeshift kennel, where animal county services provided vaccinations and fit microchips, free of charge. Noel Crosse, a manager with the department, said the goal was to keep families and their pets together.
“With the gentrification of all of our neighborhoods, people are losing houses, losing jobs and having to move to apartments that don’t allow pets,” she said. “The housing crisis is causing an animal crisis.”
For Wyke, the day was a brief reprieve. She could laugh with people she knew from different shelters and finally see a doctor for her bad back.
“The food here is fabulous,” she said with a laugh, noting that it was a rare treat.
But eventually, she knew the day would end and her worries would return. When the cold weather hits, those worries will be “much worse.”
“There are homeless people in every town in America," she said. "Some of 'em are kids, which makes it harder to adjust, you know? I think everybody should have to spend a weekend homeless. Then, I don’t think we would have this homeless problem."
Gillian Edevane covers Contra Costa County for NBC Bay Area. Contact her at Gillian.Edevane@NBCuni.com.