Ricky Martin walked into the sixth annual Stand Down event for Lexington's homeless population sporting a long ponytail and full beard.
He left with close-cropped hair, a trimmed beard, an appointment with Lexington's Hope Center to discuss housing and possibly a lead on a job program.
"I've been homeless now for two months," Martin said as volunteer David Bumpase, a barber with LAB, the Lexington Academy of Barbering, cut his hair. "This is my first haircut in a long time — I don't even remember when the last time I had a haircut."
The event was designed to help people like Martin, said Eleisha Kiefer, a social worker with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has sponsored Stand Down at Central Christian Church in connection with local social service providers since 2009.
Typically, 300 to 350 homeless people attend the event each year, said Jeff Herron, director of programs for New Beginnings. Herron coordinates the event with Kiefer and the VA. About one-fourth of the attendees Thursday were veterans, but Stand Down has always been open to anyone, Kiefer said.
"Stand down" is a military phrase that means a solider should stand at ease. The VA holds Stand Down events across the country to reach out to homeless veterans.
On Thursday, homeless people registered and were assigned a guide — an AmeriCorps volunteer or a social work student — who took them through the various booths at Central Christian Church. In addition to signing up for services such as Medicaid — a health care program for the poor and disabled — and getting free haircuts and dental exams, people were given winter coats, sleeping bags and bus passes.
Dr. Sharon Vetter and her assistant Steve Hone from the VA had performed 23 dental exams during the event's first two hours.
"Some people we have seen, have not seen a dentist in 10 years," Vetter said. She and Hone were able to refer veterans directly to the VA's homeless dental program and others to Mission Lexington's dental clinic on South Limestone.
The goal is to set up appointments and make those connections immediately, said Lori Clemons, director of neighborhood services for Lexington Rescue Mission.
Clemons manned the booth for Lexington Rescue Mission, which has several homeless outreach programs.
"We can reach a population here that may not come to the mission," Clemons said. "We have a new job training program that starts on Monday. We are trying to get people signed up now so they can start on Monday."
More than just connecting people with services, the annual event helps build trust, particularly in a population that can be difficult to serve.
"They feel so thrown away," Kiefer said of the homeless. "An event like this shows that the community really does care about them."