More than just shelter
Published 10:54 am, Friday, December 2, 2016
WESTPORT — Only in Westport can you find a homeless shelter in such proximity to a Tiffany & Co.
The Gillespie Center, a center for single men nestled in the heart of downtown, is just one of the 10 facilities run by Homes with Hope that collectively house over 100 people each night in Westport.
After five surgeries, a divorce and a number of layoffs, Steve Goldfarb found himself in the Gillespie Center three months ago, the first time he had ever been without a home.
“As far as what I’ve heard of other shelters, this is the Ritz-Carlton of shelters, but it’s still a shelter. You still get people in who are not always stable and who need a roof over their heads and they provide it. They provide tons of food,” Goldfarb said.
The center’s community kitchen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“I was in New York City three weeks ago. I walked past a shelter on 124th Street and Third Avenue and came back here and said, ‘Thank God for this place,’ ” he said.
The reach of Homes with Hope
Emergency Shelters: places where people live temporarily until they find permanent housing
Supportive Housing: permanent housing
Locations in Westport unless otherwise noted.
Since entering the Gillespie Center in September, Goldfarb said the shelter has encouraged him to look for permanent housing, all the while making sure he is meticulous about his finances and helping him find a job. Open 24 hours a day, the center provides highly trained social workers and caseworkers to help the men with everything from overcoming a drug problem to getting proper identification to apply for a job.
“It’s not just a shelter in the sense of having a roof over someone’s head,” Rob Lockhart, the program director of the Gillespie Center, said.
“What it offers is all the supports that go along with helping someone succeed. So generally that is making sure that they’re in a stable environment, there isn’t alcohol or drugs around and there’s a heavy emphasis on case management,” he said.
The shelter continues to help guests even after they leave. Lockhart said they will provide a bag of groceries if somebody needs it and will help them fill out forms such as lease renewals or benefit packages.
Michael P., who requested his last name be withheld, ended up homeless after a severe car accident left him with a number of financial problems. Following a year-long stint at another shelter Michael said the Gillespie Center was a drastic improvement from his old shelter.
“I came in and they accepted me,” said Michael, describing the two as heaven and hell.
The chance to live with people who were not intoxicated made the living circumstances for Michael much easier to get back on track. After six months in Westport, Michael is on his way to securing permanent housing in Norwalk.
Since Jeff Wieser became president and CEO of Homes With Hope in 2010, the number of homeless people housed in town increased from 80 to 115.
“Westport gets a lot of grief for mansions or people not caring, yet I’ve got that list of 800 or so Westporters who donate money to a homeless shelter and that says to me that there’s a lot of compassion in the town,” he said. “There are a lot of good people who are looking out for their neediest neighbor.”
Wieser celebrates the fact the operation is located in such a rich town. Only three other affluent suburban shelter programs like the one in Westport exist: Fairfield, Conn., Reston, Va., and Petaluma, Calif.,
“The rest of the world makes it a big-city problem,” he said. Homes with Hope takes care of Westport residents in need, as well as people from neighboring communities.
“We have capacity for others, as an affluent community should. But most affluent communities take the opposite approach. They say, ‘We don’t want to take care of our own, let alone help others. Let’s send them all to the big city.’ And the big cities can’t afford to educate their children, let alone look after suburban homeless or their own homeless,” he said.
Wieser said if every community had a program like Homes with Hope, the burden would shift from the cities and the homeless would be in places where they could be helped and not just “warehoused.” Many homeless shelters, unlike Westport, are open to the homeless from dinner until the morning, leaving them to loiter while they wait for the shelter to reopen — a model that fails to help those in need get a job and housing, he said.
Wieser celebrates an important statistic: “Forty-five percent of the people who left our emergency shelters here went to some sort of permanent housing, which, for a shelter, is huge.”