SALT LAKE CITY — Dale Beba said he'd never grown a beard until this year.
The 57-year-old man, confined to a wheelchair because of a twisted spine, a broken neck and fused bones, has had a lot of other things on his plate.
Beba said he had been homeless 14 days as of Friday. He had gone from living in transitional housing with only disability income to back to the Road Home shelter after he said living with a fellow tenant became unbearable.
"I was at the end of my rope," Beba said. "I didn't know what to do."
So Friday, Beba came to the Salt Palace Convention Center for Salt Lake City's second annual Project Homeless Connect — a daylong, one-stop shop event that brought together more than 100 service providers to help people in need.
"I figured this was as good as a spot as any to figure out my options," Beba said.
A free haircut and shave was one of his first stops. Beba sat down with a thick, gray beard. When the hairdresser finished and handed him a mirror, Beba jerked back in his chair, his mouth agape, and laughed.
He said he "felt like a new man."
"Everybody's going to think somebody stole my go-cart," he said, chuckling.
Next on Beba's list: housing. But he knew that wasn't going to be as simple as a haircut.
Most of all, Beba said he was grateful for the help. To have hundreds of volunteers and service providers all in one place was "great," he said.
"A lot of people, they're at their wit's end, too," Beba said. "This gives us an opportunity to feel better."
Tallies were still being taken Friday, but Mike Akerlow, chairman of Project Homeless Connect, said organizers were hoping to help about 1,000 clients. Last year, the city's first event, helped 784, he said.
Akerlow, who is also CEO of Community Development Corp. of Utah, the nonprofit partnering with Salt Lake City to organize the event, said Project Homeless Connect brings "a lot of joy" to not only people experiencing homelessness but also volunteers.
"I look at the people, the community volunteers, come here and they spend the day doing this, it just breaks down those barriers and really helps people understand the issues better," Akerlow said. "There's a lot of compassion and a lot of love."
Akerlow said more than 1,300 volunteers registered for Friday's event, and an estimated 1,100 showed up. So did more than 100 service providers — offering such things as dental work or vaccinations to legal assistance or workforce services.
What's most important, Akerlow said, is that all are treated like humans.
"They just want to be treated like everybody else. To have somebody look them in the eye and say, 'Hey we care about you. We want to take care of you and get you connected to services.' It makes all the difference," Akerlow said.
For Lisa Bolan, 37, who had just gotten a fresh haircut, that message resonated. She said she and her boyfriend had been living on and off the streets for about five months.
"You wouldn't believe how many people walk by homeless people every day and don't even acknowledge them," she said. "It's really sad. Because how do you think that makes that person feel?"
"People are people. We're still human beings," Bolan said. "One day one of the people you're walking by could be you. Keep that in mind, not to take anything for granted. Even the smallest things."
Marisa Diggs, 46, came to Friday's event with one thing on top of her mind — the well-being of her "baby," Precious, a 6-year-old Chihuahua she carried around in a Superman backpack.
Vet checkups, vaccinations and free dog food were offered to people in need that also care for animals. From 80-pound pit bulls to tiny Chihuahuas like Precious, pets of all sizes roamed the Salt Palace with their people.
"She's all I've got, and I'm all she's got," Diggs said of her pet.
Diggs said she adopted Precious after she saw her on TV as a homeless pet. She said she was told if no one adopted her, she'd likely be euthanized because she was aggressive.
"Now she's changed," Diggs said, while Precious sat timidly in her arms. "Once she gets to know you, she's good."
Diggs said she herself isn't homeless, and she's doing her best to keep it that way.
But living off of disability — $800 a month — doesn't go very far, she said.1 comment on this story
Friday, Diggs said she hoped to also get some food in her pantry, as soon as Precious got her shots.
Diggs said she was working as a crossing guard in South Salt Lake recently until one day, when she was holding her stop sign, she fainted.
"All I remember is waking up at the hospital with two IVs," she said.
Diggs said she was diagnosed with diabetes. She said she also had open-heart surgery in March.
"I'm suffering right now from all that," she said. So to get help Friday, Diggs said made her "very happy."
"It's a big relief," she said.