Opinion: 'We take care of our own"™
Published 10:22 am, Wednesday, July 21, 2010
It has been some time since I have seen the man at the bottom of the ramp at exit 17 asking motorists entering Westport for "spare change." But he is back, in the brutal July heat, and, while I am in a job where compassion guides my responses, I find it easy not to provide him with the funds he seeks. Over the years I have offered to drive him to our local emergency shelter, and he -- or his predecessor -- has declined, indicating that he does not need the support Westport willingly offers. He just wants cash, and I have a hard time with that in this very generous town.
In many towns throughout Fairfield County, I would say he is justified in seeking donations to help him get through the day. In many towns, he might have trouble finding an evening meal, or seeking employment, or fighting one of the many demons so many of our family and friends quietly suffer.
But in Westport, he can ask for all that assistance and receive it; he need not ask simply for money from motorists who do not know the level of support he can receive here.
I am the new president of our community's response to homelessness. As the head of Homes with Hope (formerly the Interfaith Housing Association), it is my job to be concerned with all of the individuals in our town who suffer this most challenging of human conditions. And I am. We take responsibility for those who would otherwise fall through the social safety net. Homes with Hope has room for 15 single men and four single women in our emergency shelter. Homes with Hope has six units available for families headed by single mothers who are seeking shelter for a period of time to get back on their feet. Homes with Hope maintains 14 units of permanent supportive housing for single and family residents who could not maintain a household without the casework afforded to each of the residents in all of our programs.
This housing, around 60 beds per night, is all provided in Westport and is available to those in need, including anyone who appears desperate enough to ask for donations of Westporters who are returning to town via exit 17.
Additionally, every year more than 450 volunteers provide evening meals to about 40 people at our Community Kitchen -- anyone who needs food and shows up is fed. We provide more than 2,000 bags of groceries each year to needy neighbors through our Food Pantry. And we provide a jobs training program to neighbors who are looking for help in entering or reentering the workforce.
We are proud of the support our community offers to its most under-served residents through our agency, the town's Department of Human Services and others. There is no need to have anyone requesting handouts in one of the most visible spots in town. We take care of our own.
Jeffrey N. Wieser is the president and CEO of Homes with Hope, formerly the Interfaith Housing Association.