By Mac McLean

The Bulletin

If you go

What: Project Connect

When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 13

Where: Deschutes County fairgrounds, 3800 SW Airport Way in Redmond

Cost: Free

Contact: For more information, visit

Deb LaPaugh sat surrounded by vials of medication on the floor of her southwest Bend veterinary clinic as she did a quick Wednesday afternoon inventory of what she’d need for this year’s Central Oregon Project Connect.

“It’s really satisfying at the end of the day because you’re all beat and you get a chance to see everything that you’ve done,” said LaPaugh, who has provided free veterinary services at the event since it started eight years ago.

Each year, Project Connect has brought together an army of volunteers so they can help Central Oregon’s homeless population get everything from an emergency tooth extraction to a much-needed haircut in a single setting.

Its organizers said 804 volunteers like LaPaugh, who coordinates the Project Connect veterinary team, from 63 different organizations provided food and services to 2,265 homeless people last year.

But they’re expecting an even bigger crowd at this year’s event — which will take place at the Deschutes County fairgrounds on Sept. 13 — given a report that shows the region’s homeless population has jumped significantly since 2013 (see “If you go”).

“We’re likely going to get about 3,000 people this year,” said Project Connect coordinator Katja Spiecker. “There will be people who get there at 7 a.m. (which is two hours before) the gates open at 9 a.m.”

The need

According to the Homeless Leadership Connection’s latest point-in-time homeless count, more than 2,410 people in Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties were homeless this past January. That figure includes 522 chronically homeless people who have either been homeless for more than a year or have experienced four periods of homelessness within the past three years.

Spiecker was upset by this report because it shows the region’s homeless population has increased by 17.4 percent since the last point-in-time count was conducted in the spring of 2013. But even worse is the fact it shows the region’s chronically homeless population has more than doubled since last year, and that means hundreds of people have had to do without the services most people take for granted.

One of the biggest things these people end up missing out on is a primary care physician who can tend to their health care needs or refer them to a specialist who can, said Dana Peters, an emergency room nurse with St. Charles Bend who runs Project Connect’s medical team. Peters said filling in this gap is the main reason she volunteers with Project Connect.

“Our job is to get people in the system,” she said, explaining her job is to make sure the 70 to 100 people who come to her tent for help each year get matched up with a physician who can follow up with care after the event is over.

In addition to making referrals, most often to places that provide free or low-cost medical care like Mosaic Medical or Volunteers In Medicine, Peters’ team also hands out information to people about where they can find help if they want to quit smoking or services that can help them manage a chronic condition such as diabetes or heart disease.

Peters said she also sees “some pretty bad stuff” where patients require emergency treatment for conditions like sepsis and need to be sent to the hospital as soon as possible.

“We’ve had several codes,” she said, adding her team includes a specially trained crew of health care professionals who are on call because people have had heart attacks while waiting for their medical care. “It never fails that something happens.”

Peters said the seriousness of these situations is why it’s so important that people get the referral and preventive care services at Project Connect. Without this early help, she said the people will likely end up in an emergency room where they’ll receive high cost medical treatment that often comes out of the public’s wallet.

“It’s nice to see the cost effectiveness of providing preventative care instead of emergency medicine,” said Alex Winn, a pharmacist at the St. Charles and Volunteers in Medicine who will be dispensing a limited amount of drugs at Project Connect. “That kind of saves everybody money because (these people) often don’t pay their bills and that increases the cost of care for everybody who does have health insurance.”

The services

According to Spiecker’s tally, medical services like immunizations, tooth extractions, vision consultations and urgent care referrals made up about half of the 5,842 services Project Connect’s volunteers provided at last year’s event.

The remaining services included a chance to meet with representatives from groups as diverse as the Deschutes Public Library system, which offers free help finding a job and putting together a resume; the county government, which helps people find a copy of their birth certificate or another form of identification; and Phagans’ Central Oregon Beauty College, which gave a little more than 300 free haircuts to people at last year’s event.

“I think its huge for them to get a free haircut,” college director Debbie Patrick said, adding some people have cried after getting their free haircut because it meant so much to them. “It helps their self-esteem and makes them a little bit more confident about who they are and how they look.”

While volunteering at Project Connect carries some benefit for her students (they can count each haircut they give at the event toward the 300 they need to graduate), Patrick said it gives them a chance to learn the value of community service and that is a lesson just about everybody should know.

“The amount of generosity our volunteers provide is phenomenal,” said Spiecker, who estimates Project Connect’s volunteers donated $329,675 worth of services and time at last year’s event alone.

She said it’s also not too late for people to get involved in this year’s event. Her organization is actively seeking people who would be willing to help Project Connect’s clients find the services they need, and serve the two free meals that each participant can get just for showing up (see “Want to help?”).

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,