The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 26, 2013

One-day event connects agencies to those in need

By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Jeff Hansen knows what he will do when he lands a job.

“My first paycheck, I’m getting a cellphone.”

Finding a job, he’s found, is tough without one. So is finding one when you don’t have a home address.

Hansen, a Minnesota native, then 30-year Albuquerque, N.M., resident, has had two temporary addresses since arriving in Mankato three weeks ago: Wal-Mart and the Salvation Army.

The first three nights he slept in his car in the Wal-Mart lot, and then he got into the Salvation Army men’s shelter.

Hansen was one of more than 700 people who came to the Verizon Wireless Center for Project Community Connect, where dozens of agencies that provide services to the poor and homeless were on hand.

His goal was to get a haircut and land a job, or barring that, get gas money to drive to the Twin Cities to look for work.

He’s in a situation he’s unfamiliar with.

For most of the past three decades he worked as a photographer and in photo studios. (Years ago he was a wedding photographer at ArtCraft Photography in Mankato.)

But in 2008 the studio he was working for shut down and he took a job as a 711 cashier in a badly battered Albuquerque economy. He also went back to college for an associate’s degree in graphic design. “I couldn’t keep up with the tuition and I had to leave.”

Which brought him to his home state and its stronger economy.

Hansen, eating a sandwich, chips and cookie — one of 800 served Tuesday — was planning to go to an employment desk where he saw Wal-Mart was advertising for help, where he hoped to get a cashier or photo-lab job.

He had also hoped to stop at the booth offering free cellphones with 200 free minutes a month for qualifying people. That’s until he found out he wouldn’t be able to get one of the phones because he had no home address.

Hansen, an easy-smiling man who had high praise for the Mankato Salvation Army and for Wal-Mart (“It’s nice they let people stay in the lot overnight. They don’t bother you.”), said he doesn’t dwell on his stretch of misfortune.

“I’m not going to let all this get me down.”

Kate Hengy-Gretz, one of the event organizers, said bringing a host of services to one location for people like Hansen has been a big hit since Community Connect started three years ago.

Shortly after the doors opened, a line of more than 100 people snaked out the door as a team of volunteers took a five-minute intake session with each person to better understand what services they required.

“A lot of people are looking for a job or housing,” Hengy-Gretz said.

One of the most popular booths was for a free haircut, staffed by nine local stylists. By shortly after 11 a.m., they were already booked out to 1:30 p.m. The event goes until 4 p.m.

“We did 75 haircuts last year,” said volunteer Gretchen Rialson. They had so many people they couldn’t get to, in fact, Rialson quickly called area hair salons asking a favor. “We gave out 50 certificates for free haircuts so they could just go to the salons and get them.”

Minnesota Valley Action Council, Greater Mankato Area United Way, Partners for Affordable Housing and others helped organize the event.