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Volunteers cut the hair of homeless people at a Project Connect event on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 in Tempe, Ariz. (Bob McClay/KTAR)

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Hundreds of the Valley's homeless turned out in Tempe on Thursday for something that may help them turn their lives around.

It was the Valley of the Sun United Way's Project Connect event at Sun Valley Community Church. Among other things, volunteers helped homeless people find out if they qualify for food stamps or AHCCCS.

"Before they leave, they actually know ‘Can I have an EBT card so I can go and buy some food?'" said United Way Vice President Amy Schwabenlender. "We also provide them with some simple things, like a shower and a haircut, to help people feel better about themselves. They can also get health care services, flu shots, employment and housing services."

There were hundreds of volunteers helping with the event. One of them is a man who knows what it's like to be out on the streets.

It was 10 years ago that Gabriel Hernandez's alcoholism led to the end of his 24-year marriage. His wife divorced him.

"I chose to be homeless," he said. "At that time, I had too much pride."

Hernandez is a former wrestling and football coach at Dysart High School in Avondale and a veteran.

"I was a sergeant and a squad leader," he said. "I had a lot of pride. I didn't need any help from anybody and didn't want any help from anybody."

After eight years on the streets, he got help from a Tempe church two years ago. The church helped him get an apartment and a part-time job. At the event, he was helping other homeless people, including some people that he knew when he was on the streets. Hernandez told them that if he could get his life back together, they can do it too.

Schwabenlender said that Project Connect is a once-a-month event that brings social services to various parts of the Valley.

"We know that a lot of social services are in the central Phoenix area, downtown Phoenix. They're not necessarily out in the East Valley," she said. "By taking services to where the people are and where they need them, we are making things easier on people."

Next month's Project Connect event will be held in El Mirage.

Bob McClay, Reporter

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