It's easy to scapegoat people living on society's lowest rung -- and easier yet to mock the local residents who choose to serve them.

But it's way more difficult to help the marginalized find at least some hope.

That's really what the annual Project Homeless Connect is about. No judgment about why someone is homeless. No barriers for people with various conditions ranging from mental illness to substance abuse.

No flinching at the havoc that circumstances and, yes, choices have often wrought upon people.

Tuesday's United Way of Santa Cruz County-sponsored event took place inside and outside the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. It brought together a huge crowd including activists, service providers, a local church serving more than a thousand free meals, public officials and homeless folks from around the county.

There has been a long-running argument in Santa Cruz, especially, about whether services offered in the downtown area contribute to what many see as a growing number of people living on the streets, underneath bridges or even finding shelter at the Homeless Services Center.

If one adds in the city's ever-present and myriad drug and alcohol temptations, the combination has often been blamed for behaviors and criminal activity that most people find unacceptable.

If you have a house, a job, a family, a car, decent medical care and you're not chemically addicted, it can become difficult to find sympathy for

the men and women carrying bedrolls on their backs, trudging through parks and open spaces, or even asking for handouts on street corners.

Of course, the problem is hardly that simple, as people who work with the homeless community know all too well. For some homeless, it's losing a job or missing a rent payment and then finding themselves suddenly out on the street. For others, the onslaught of painful and debilitating psychological illness turns their lives upside down.

For single moms with kids, it might be a nightly battle just to find a safe place to sleep.

Tuesday's event won't solve the enduring problem of homelessness, or what attracts people to Santa Cruz, or the question of appropriate services.

But it did bring together hundreds of volunteers and a disparate group of other community members. For instance, Santa Cruz County District Attorney Bob Lee showed up -- and stayed for lunch, even though several activists confronted him about his office's prosecution of individuals for illegal sleeping in public areas and for the illegal takeover of a former bank building near downtown. Lee listened -- and later noted he supports finding a way to clear up many of the minor legal issues involving the local homeless population clogging the court system.

As almost always with homeless issues, Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane was on site, offering encouragement to those with questions -- some homeless were paired up with volunteer advocates to help them figure out how to obtain needed services -- and gratitude at the turnout. Homeless Services Center Executive Director Monica Martinez, who has shown a remarkable ability to balance community concerns with the needs of the center's clients, was rightfully pleased at the volunteer turnout.

For one day, at least, it was not out-of-sight, out-of-mind for many homeless people who were able to get medical services, get their teeth and eyes checked, and their bicycles repaired, or to be graced with a free haircut -- all from community volunteers. These free services would be everyday, taken-for-granted stuff for most of us, but for hundreds and hundreds of people who got connected, they were a gift.