800 gather in Reno for homeless outreach event

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800 gather in Reno for homeless outreach event

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Homeless men and women wait in line for a haircut at this year's Project Homeless Connect in Reno hosted by Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada.

Nearly 800 homeless people gathered in Reno Tuesday to link up with vital services like housing opportunities and medical care at this year's Project Homeless Connect hosted by Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada.

The outreach event was held amidst recent cuts in federal long-term unemployment benefits and future cuts to the food stamp program that are included in the federal farm bill, which cleared the Senate Tuesday.

Along with handing out winter clothing and bags of food, vendors offered free haircuts, a service that will allow Bryant Hardin to interview with potential employers.

"I'm definitely putting in job applications everywhere," Hardin says. "I get up every day and go--Monday through Saturday. I've only had one interview so far, but that's not going to stop me. I'm not going to stop until somebody say, 'You're hired.'"

Hardin worked in the warehouse shipping industry for 16 years, but he's only been able to find seasonal work and day labor jobs the past few years. He's been homeless for nearly two months and is now living at a men's shelter downtown run by the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission.

James Sorenson lives there, too, and is also looking for work.

"You've just got to push forward and apply yourself to these particular job offers," Sorenson explains. "If you don't, the job's not going to walk up to you and offer itself. I'm a carpenter, but basically, not to say I'll settle, but I'll do labor work, I'll do different kinds of work just to stay busy and have an income coming in. "

Sorensen has been homeless on and off for about four years. As he and many other Nevadans continue applying for jobs, federal lawmakers are looking at possible options for extending long-term unemployment benefits, which were scaled back in December. Those discussions include a bill co-sponsored by Republican Senator Dean Heller which would extend the benefits by three months.

On a conference call Monday, Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he'll bring the issue up once again by early next week.

Along with cuts to unemployment, the federal food stamp program will also see funding decreases of $800 million a year, around one percent of the overall program cost, once President Barack Obama signs the farm bill later this week.

"To think that charitable food organizations are going to be able to make up the difference that a federal program loses is not realistic," says Jenny Yeager with the Food Bank of Northern Nevada. "And so we need to have both resources available in order to fully meet their needs."

The food bank is one of more than 70 agencies that set up booths at Project Homeless Connect. Along with providing information on the nearly forty food pantries in the area, Yeager and her staff handed out bags of food.

"Today we have peanut butter," Yeager says, "we have coffee, we have almonds, we have protein bars..."

Each bag will only last a few days, which is consistent with what food pantries can offer.

"Most food pantries are providing enough assistance to families for 2-3 days at best," Yeager says, "and so they need to be able to have multiple resources in order to meet those food needs for themselves for a week."

Along with bags of food and haircuts and other provisions that help in the short-term, event organizers say there are long-term benefits for participants as well, and that helping the homeless navigate a complicated, spread-out system of agencies can lead them to medical providers, mental health intervention, and low-income housing.