Even in a town as affluent as Westport, advocates for the homeless are needed. The largest such group in town is Homes with Hope (formerly known as Interfaith Housing Association), best known for running the downtown Gillespie Center for people in need and pursuing its goal of dealing with the "tragedy of homelessness."

After 22 years of leadership by Pete Powell, there will be a change up top. The new president of the nonprofit organization will be Jeffrey Wieser, a Westport resident who serves on the RTM.

With a background in finance and a number of years spent on the organization's board of directors, Weiser will begin his new job in late March. He agreed to answer a few questions from the Westport News as he prepares for his new job.

What prompted you to become involved with Homes with Hope, which was then known as Interfaith Housing Association?

I learned of IHA while serving on my church's outreach committee, and Pete Powell asked me to join the board in 1989. Since then I have been on most of the board committees, chairman of the board and general supporter of the organization. Over the years I have seen the good work the agency does for people in great need. It is easy to appreciate what Homes with Hope does for so many people.

In light of recent times, has demand for the organization's services gone up? Are more people struggling?

Over the years, the needs of many of the clients we have assisted have been driven by treatable psychological or substance causes. Lately, economics has, indeed, become more of an issue. This has been most clearly demonstrated in our community kitchen at the Gillespie Center, where the demand for evening meals has increased noticeably. We currently serve about 40 meals per night, and all of the dinners are provided by local civic, church and business groups as well as families that want to get involved and lend a hand to those who are in need.

Similarly, demand for food from our food pantry has continued with an increase in demand. Last year we distributed over 2,000 bags of food to individuals and families. Our ability to distribute this supply is, of course, linked to the abilities of our volunteers to provide food, and we have been blessed to have the support of many organizations and families in the community who have conducted food drives on our behalf -- or who have simply dropped off food at the Gillespie Center downtown.

In housing, an increase in need at the shelters has been met by a small increase in our supply of housing. We added two apartments for single mothers at our facility on the Post Road, and in September we opened the Westport Rotary Centennial House providing permanent housing to two families and four individuals on West End Avenue, a beautiful facility. One of our most successful programs, the Bachrach Community, which helps single mothers transition to permanent housing, turns away far too many people because of our lack of capacity. We would love to help more of these families with expanded facilities, and that is a major challenge for us.

Homelessness is a constant concern. Opinions differ, but what do you think is the best way to get somebody back on his/her feet?

The hierarchy of basic needs starts with oxygen, water, food and shelter. We can't do much about oxygen, but we cover the next three! Someone living on the street does not have a hope of getting back into society unless that individual can get emergency food and shelter. The problem is that person needs a more permanent solution to get fully back into a stable long-term environment.

That is why, following the vision of our strategic plan five years ago, we are more focused on supportive housing, i.e. permanent housing in which the client is regularly in touch with a case worker. Every person in each of our facilities is assigned a case worker and gains the support of that professional. That is a wonderful benefit for our clients and provides great momentum and guidance for a successful turnaround.

Pete Powell, your predecessor, ran Homes with Home for more than two decades and you begin your new job next month. What are some organizational changes you hope to make, and what are the aspects of the organization that you hope to keep the same?

I am joining Homes with Hope with a great respect for the past and a great desire to expand the message of the organization. We have a talented staff that have been with Homes with Hope for a long time. I do not foresee great organizational change, but I am hopeful that we can continue to convince our community in Westport and beyond that our work is important.

Unlike so many other communities of our size, Westport can say with great pride that we try to take care of all of our citizens, even those least able to help themselves. When so many have so much, we provide basic services to a number of people efficiently and on a very tight budget. I would like to expand that message and encourage other communities to do the same, while increasing our ability to take care of a larger share of those in need.

There was the recent name change of the organization, but what's the future of Homes with Hope? Are there new initiatives or projects on the horizon?

As its former name -- Interfaith Housing -- suggests, Homes with Hope was founded by a coalition of religious leaders in town, and we continue to maintain strong important ties to the faith-based community. We are proceeding in all things by strengthening what we have done, and by building on it. We currently maintain 14 Permanent Affordable Supportive Housing units. We have three new projects that comprise another 30 units, in Westport and Norwalk, that we hope to progress over the next few years.

We have a dedicated board which has been open to interesting opportunities to advance our strategic vision, and they remain willing to explore new projects. It is an exciting time in which we are constrained only by or ability to find initiatives and our ability to fund those initiatives. I hope we can expand our message and our activities and provide in the most economic way possible the basic needs of food and shelter to our neighbors who cannot manage on their own.

For more information about Homes with Hope, visit the organization's Web site, www.ihawestport.com