Yes, Westport has its homeless, and Westport has its hungry. Fortunately, as Jeff Wieser, Executive Director of Westport’s Homes With Hope recently told Y’s Men of Westport/Weston, his organization has been helping our community for 30 years.
Wieser was introduced by Reverend Peter Powell, a Y’s Man who led the organization and its predecessor, the Interfaith Housing Association, for 22 years. He told the audience that “Jeff got the mission right a long time ago,” first as a volunteer, then a volunteer board member, and now as its leader.
The need to feed the homeless bubbled to the surface in the early 1980s, due to efforts by Ted Hoskins, then Pastor of the Saugatuck Congregational Church, to respond to the growing number of people sleeping in the church. After a spirited campaign – what else would we expect in Westport – Hoskins’ group, Operation Bootstrap, began feeding people in need in 1983.
In December, 1984 a homeless shelter for 16 men was opened in the former Vigilant Fire House on Wilton Road. Five years later the shelter was relocated to the Gillespie Center – making “Westport perhaps the only town in American where the homeless shelter is two doors from Tiffany’s.”
In 2013 Homes With Hope received and donated over 3,200 bags of groceries through the Food Pantry – “homelessness prevention” Wieser called it, half to Westporters. They served over 30,000 meals at the Community Kitchen in the Gillespie Center, and sheltered 108 people in Gillespie’s 15 men’s and four women’s beds.
But Powell’s vision went far beyond a needed meal and temporary shelter. His jewel in the crown is the 30 units of permanent supportive housing the organization runs – with another 20 planned for the next two years. PSH shelters the homeless in home settings. More importantly, it provides each client with professional casework support and “resources needed for them to be successful in their journey out of homelessness.”
In 1998 Powell led Homes into supportive housing with the acquisition of four buildings with nine units of what are today permanent supportive housing on Saugatuck Avenue near exit 17. At last December’s 30th anniversary celebration the area was appropriately renamed Powell Place. Homes With Hope also own six units on West End Avenue and ten in Hale’s Court. And the Westport Housing Authority is razing the trailer park at Sasco Creek to add about 50 apartment units, six of which will be Homes With Hope permanent supportive housing.
Since 1992 the organization has provided housing for 183 families headed by single mothers and their 278 children in the Bacharach Community, three homes on Wassel Lane. Despite some initial concern, Wieser commented that “today we’re a part of the neighborhood.” They have also converted the Linxweiler House on the Post Road to house two single mothers and their families.
Both locations provide homes for these families as the mothers seek employment, take counseling to assure they do not return to homelessness, and help them progress to more permanent housing.
Wieser noted that they can do as much as they do because they have a substantial number of volunteers to aid them. He recognized a few Y’s Men – the men who make weekly food deliveries from Stew Leonard’s and rake leaves at Bacharach Community; individuals including Bob Stokes, who provides pre-employment training as part of the Permanent Supportive Housing program; Austen Doolittle, one of the first board chairs; Larry Untermeyer, who has photographed their Castles in the Sand projects since the beginning; Mario Sa’Cuto for organizing a recent Westport Sunrise Rotary food drive; and the Hoot Owls, the Y’s Men’s singing group, who entertain at their holiday party.
Important a model as homes With Hope is, it is, as closely as Wieser can determine, one of only four in affluent suburban communities in the US, along with Operation Hope in Fairfield, Cornerstones in Reston, VA, and Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) in Petaluma, CA.
Homes With Hope gets only 30 percent of its funding from government agencies, in part Wieser noted, because government prefers “more standardized solutions,” and it prefers to fund programs in cities that meet today’s needs today rather than investing in the more comprehensive Permanent Supportive Housing programs that can make a permanent difference.
Much of the other 70 percent is raised through two major events every year – in November, an evening of comedy, Stand Up for Homes With Hope at Westport Country Playhouse, and Castles in the Sand, a day of sand sculpting at Compo Beach, this year on May 10th.
Those interested in learning more about Homes With Hope – and in entering Castles in the Sand – should click on this link: http://www.hwhct.org.
Photo by Larry Untermeyer