Overnight sleep-outs organized by high school and college students to raise awareness of homelessness have become an annual rite of fall.

But never before in Duluth have all those groups and hundreds more people planned to camp outside at once -- as they will tonight -- to raise money and goods for Duluth's homeless population, estimated at more than 500 people.

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Proceeds from the Community-Wide Night Without a Home will go toward the newly formed Project Homeless Connect, which will sponsor an unprecedented one-day event Wednesday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

Free and confidential services, including medical and mental health care, as well as employment and housing information, will be offered to the poor all day. More than 50 public, private and nonprofit service providers will host booths at the event, said Karen Anderson, Project Homeless Connect spokeswoman.

Contributions raised from the sleep-out also will be distributed to the homeless at Wednesday's event from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Many of the winter clothing and toiletry items also were donated by local businesses.

Volunteers still are needed for Wednesday. They can sign up by calling True North Volunteer Center in Duluth at 722-4745.

Organizers said they hope both events become annual affairs. Similar projects in St. Paul and Minneapolis have drawn thousands of needy people.

The Duluth Transit Authority has provided 300 free rider vouchers for that day at Duluth homeless shelters, soup lines and food shelves. Free shuttle bus service will be available for the disabled.

"As long as we have one person who wants a roof over their head, we have a homeless issue,' said Kim Crawford, an event organizer and director at the Churches United in Ministry. "And as a community, we have a responsibility to do something about that.'

The weather shouldn't be too bad for tonight's event. The National Weather Service in Duluth anticipates partly cloudy skies and an overnight low of 43 degrees.

"The idea was to involve as many members of the Duluth community as we can to increase our sensitivity and awareness about homelessness and people living in the margins,' Crawford said. "This is especially important with it getting colder.'

Twenty- to 50-person groups of church-goers, students, veterans and others established sleep-outs at eight locations across the city, Anderson said.

People who aren't signed up are welcome to show up tonight, Crawford said. They also would accept contributions ranging from cash to new toothbrushes and socks to sleeping bags, she said.

At each function, a resident who has experienced homelessness also will speak, as will St. Louis County Commissioner Steve O'Neil and Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson.

The events are part of Bergson's Task Force to End Homelessness.

CHRIS HAMILTON covers Duluth City Hall and neighborhoods. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5502 or by e-mail at chamilton@duluthnews.com.