Past the table piled high with books, beyond the racks of clothes and a large selection of bedding, near the temporary café in Pinnacle Bank Arena Thursday morning, Jerry Renick perused the woolen winter caps on display.
He had a backpack full of supplies and a “navigator” named Amanda Owen-Doerr who’d led him to the Veterans Affairs services area -- one of more than 50 organizations on hand to help those who came to the seventh annual Project Homeless Connect.
Renick was one of more than 400 people who attended -- a record number -- to take advantage of a wide variety of services.
There were booths offering haircuts and family portraits, medical, vision and dental checks, information on employment and benefits, help with tax preparation, information on education opportunities, car repair and pet care services.
Renick visited an area set aside for veterans, a "stand down" event hosted by Veterans Affairs Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System. Such events bring together various veterans services in one place to help homeless veterans with medical care, housing, benefits and offer backpacks full of toiletries and other necessities.
The woolen hats, jeans, shirts and other clothes came from the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, which collects the donations year-round and distributes them at events like the one Thursday.
Renick, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War, isn’t homeless now, thanks to housing assistance through Veterans Affairs, but he was for many years, along with his brother. Originally from Oklahoma, Renick said he hitchhiked through Nebraska once -- and eventually found his way back.
The event is helpful, he said, even though he’s no longer on the streets, and he made use of the veterans medical services as well as getting a haircut from one of the other booths and stopping by the pet care station.
Owen-Doerr -- one of nearly 300 community members and college students who volunteered to be "navigators" -- helped him find what he needed.
Each person who comes through the doors is assigned a navigator armed with a clipboard and checklist who makes sure people find what they are looking for.
“I have a huge passion for people who become homeless and struggle, and this is a great way to connect them with services in one place,” she said. “It is a cool event, not just for them, but for us.”
Nearby, the Lancaster County Public Defender’s Office and Legal Aid were ready to offer people advice and help.
Last year, they drove eight to 10 people to court so they could take care of minor warrants or set up payment plans for fines. This year, attorneys were on hand to do the same for people who owed child support.
The public defender's office tried to use Facetime to connect people at the arena with a judge, but they had technical problems so they drove them to the courthouse. They hope to try again next year.
“I saw it as an easy way to serve more people,” said Public Defender Joe Nigro.
Renick didn’t need those services, but he found the walk to the arena this morning worth the effort.
“It’s a good thing,” he said.