WESTPORT — In about two and a half decades of work with Project Return, Tessa Gilmore-Barnes has seen the group home serving young women in crisis through a recent transition and has spent years aiding women at the historic home with a sunny garden on Compo Road North.

“The women who are here they’re adults, but they’re also coming with a lot of history and a lot of barriers to being able to just live their life in a way that just feels productive. It’s just one barrier after another and you end up in survival mode, and when you’re in survival mode and you don’t have any resources it is incredibly difficult to break that cycle,” she said.

“How do you get out of it? How do you get out of a hole if you don’t have a ladder, you don’t have shoes, you don’t have anybody at the top trying to pull you up or direct you or shine light? It’s a human issue.”

Anyone, Gilmore-Barnes noted, could experience what the women who Project Return struggle with, homelessness. Project Return launched in 1984 and runs in a home where it manages upkeep in exchange for a $1 per year lease from the town of Westport. Gilmore-Barnes has been involved since 1992 when the current Bridgeport resident and West Chester County native read a New York Times article discussing its work and was struck.

She reached out to former longtime executive director Susie Basler, began helping out and was soon hired full time as a resident manager. Three years later Gilmore-Barnes continued part-time as she earned a graduate degree in social work, and she has continued in various roles since — apart from a couple of years here and there. She now runs the program.

“I kind of came into social work late,” said Gilmore-Barnes, who was 30 when she began at Project Return, “but you end up with a lot of life experience which is only helpful in this field.”

She had studied literature, psychology and philosophy, but wanted something that felt more in touch with what clearly mattered to her. Similar work had long been an impulse. She recalls a desire to help people know they’re understood.

“I think everybody makes sense when you really understand where they’re coming from and what they’ve been up against,” Gilmore-Barnes said.

Under Gilmore-Barnes’ new leadership, Project Return faced a difficult point in the fall of 2016. Due to state funding cuts, the program faced a point of significant transition.

“It was just a very painful experience because you know when you’re in this field and you’ve been working in a program like this, it’s so obvious and so evident the need and what’s helpful about it,” she said, “It’s not something that’s right for everybody but the person that it’s right for it’s really right for, and it’s going to be really hard to find someplace else that’s going to be able to provide what we were able to provide.”

The program had served as a group home for women and girls under 18 and primarily ran on funding from the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. As DCF has shifted focus to protecting families — either preserving a family unit or turning to relatives or foster families — therapeutic group homes have become rare, Gilmore-Barnes recounted. Project Return’s setting was not for all but ideal for children with a history of experiences that might make an intimate family situation emotionally overwhelming, she said.

Without DCF funds, Project Return underwent a subtle metamorphosis. In October 2016 it merged with Homes with Hope, which runs a network of emergency shelters and supportive housing scattered across Westport. It shifted to serving 18- to 24-year-old women and is the only program in the state to specifically serve that population.

“Homes with Hope had a soul,” Gilmore-Barnes said of the choice to merge. “That was what was so appealing about it — that it was operating from a level of genuineness.”

Pooling their various resources that now total 10 facilities along with supportive services, Project Return and fellow Homes with Hope programs were able to recently help a four-person families stay together and eventually to live in their own three-bedroom apartment. The mother and son of the close-knit family could stay at one Westport facility, while the father stayed at another and daughter was housed at Project Return as staff aided them as a unit.

“Working all together we were really able to keep a family intact that was at risk of being scattered,” Gilmore-Barnes said.

Project Return specifically provides a safe place that offers basic needs such as shelter and food as well as a caring, supportive staff, she said.

“I cannot say enough for the value of just providing a place where there is a bed, there is a shower, there is food, there are clean bathrooms,” she said. “A place that you know you can come to and be here and no one is trying to get something from you or manipulate you or make use of you in a way that has nothing to do with your best interest.”

For women struggling with homelessness, she described the home provides a setting where they are not alone. She noted it can be more difficult for young women to feel relaxed and comfortable in shelters, which mostly serve an older mixed-gender population.

“It’s transient and it’s temporary, but it’s a touchstone,” Gilmore-Barnes said of Project Return.

She has worked with a young woman who is a talented artist. She hadn’t shown her work to anyone when she was staying in a shelter, but decided to at Project Return. Gilmore-Barnes noticed her talent alongside many other abilities, witnessing a “multitalented” person whose strengths might have gone unnoticed. She hopes to do all she can to support the young woman exploring those talents.

“She was keeping a part of herself that is all potential — it’s all gift. But because she was in a place of just needing to survive there wasn’t anywhere for it to come out, there wasn’t anywhere for it to be recognized, to be seen, to be witnessed,” Gilmore-Barnes said. “That just feels so exciting to me on her behalf.”

lweiss@hearstmediact.com; @LauraEWeiss16