Cain and Star scratched Gracie behind her ears one last time before handing her over to the Animal Birth Control Clinic at Project Homeless Connect on Tuesday.

They would see the cat again Wednesday, after she had been spayed, vaccinated and microchipped in accordance with Waco animal ordinances. But it was still difficult to part with the cat the couple had found only two days before.

“She just walked up to us at the camp,” said Cain, who did not want to give his last name. Tears welled up in Star’s eyes as they said goodbye to Gracie.

The Animal Birth Control Clinic was one of dozens of organizations that took part in Project Homeless Connect at First Baptist Church on Tuesday, sponsored by the Heart of Texas Homeless Coalition, City of Waco and the Department of Veteran Affairs. The outreach effort followed a communitywide event Monday to count the homeless in order to help win outside funding for housing and services.

Tuesday’s event drew more than 100 homeless and other people in need, offering services such as dental information, employment assistance, haircuts, HIV testing, housing information, hygiene items, pet care, social services, veterans benefits and more.

“Pets are so much more for people than they realize, for their psyche and mental state,” said Nellie Fitzjarrell, Animal Birth Control Clinic development associate. “When things are bad, we turn to our pets for comfort.”

Fitzjarrell said if homeless people find themselves with an animal it can help raise their spirits by giving them a pet to care for. They sometimes even feed the animals instead of themselves, she said.

Because animals are not allowed on public transit, the clinic offers transportation to those who do not have their own, Fitzjarrell said. The nonprofit clinic only provides preventive services, such as spaying and neutering, microchipping and vaccinations.

Those without pets, such as Mark Rhodes, looked for clothes and hygiene products to fill their sacks.

“Being homeless is a learning process,” Rhodes said. “I’m learning more, learning to make new friends and find new ways to take care of myself.”

Meanwhile, 26 McLennan Community College cosmetology students provided haircuts. Clumps of hair fell to the floor as the students cut hair or trimmed beards side by side.

“It’s good for them to do something outside of a salon,” said Gala Row, the cosmetology instructor, of her students. “It’s a different experience, and the people are so nice.”

Jeanne Piazza, originally from Jamestown, New York, said she hadn’t gotten her hair cut in years, unless she counted the times she tied her hair in a ponytail only to cut it off with a pair of scissors. She said she had been homeless for many years but was finally seeking help in the form of rehabilitation.

“It’s something short of a miracle,” she said of the haircut, tears streaming down her face. “It’s a God-like feel.”

Among the organizations participating Tuesday were Epiphany Soul, Family of Faith Worship Center, Texas Workforce Solutions, Take Heart Ministries and the Family Abuse Center.

Family of Faith representatives were passing out fliers promoting the church’s Eva A. Soza Dream Center at 4112 Memorial Drive, where people can get free groceries by appointment, attend English and Spanish classes, and learn to sew. The center also has a clothes closet, fitness center and shower facilities.

Elizabeth Olvera, representing the center, it accepts donations of food, clothes and hygiene products to distribute to those in need.

“The community blesses us so we can bless the community,” she said.

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Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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