Gillespie Center: 25 Years Of Shelter From The Homeless Storm

For a place as contentious as Westport — half the town opposed building the playground at Compo, and half thought building a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island was just ducky — you’d think putting a homeless shelter in the heart of downtown would ignite World War III.

But you would be wrong.

The Gillespie Center is preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary this Friday (April 25, 3 p.m., in the courtyard at 45 Jesup Road). Last week, a few of the founding visionaries reminisced.

Gillespie Center - anniversary

What came through loud and clear was this: Moving the shelter from the old Vigilant Firehouse on Wilton Road to a decrepit maintenance shed behind what was then the Fine Arts Theater (now Restoration Hardware) was never an issue.

Not in 1989. Not in the intervening years. And certainly not today. Over a quarter century, the Gillespie Center — the name honors Jim Gillespie, the 1st president of Homes with Hope (then called the Interfaith Housing Association) — has provided housing, meals and hope to thousands of men and women.

And many more Westporters than that have contributed food, setup and cleanup help, equipment and funds to keep that hope alive.

Gathering at the center last week were Marty Hauhuth, 1st selectman from 1985-89; Pete Powell, Homes With Hope president from 1988-2010; Dolores Bacharach, HWH’s 1st vice president and a leader in the establishment of the community kitchen, and current HWH president Jeff Wieser.

Dolores Bacharach and Pete Powell reminisce about the early years of the Gillespie Center.

Dolores Bacharach and Pete Powell reminisce about the early years of the Gillespie Center.

Pete recalled the forces that led to the opening of the 1st homeless shelter in December 1984, at the former firehouse (located in the parking lot between Bartaco and National Hall). That event was debated. But the moral leadership of Reverend Ted Hoskins, Rabbi Bob Orkand and businessman James Bacharach (Dolores’ husband), plus the town support of 1st selectman Bill Seiden, human services director Barbara Butler and David Kennedy, tamped much of the controversy.

A few years later, as Arthur Tauck was redeveloping National Hall into an inn, the move to Jesup Road — catty-corner from the police station — made sense.

Many hands helped make the new 15-bed home possible. (Who knew the toilets were rescued from a home that Phil Donohue was razing?) A 5-bed facility for women — Hoskins Place — was build next to the men’s shelter, when the transit district office moved.

Over the years, the Gillespie Center’s conversion from a beat-up old building to a well-maintained shelter has enhanced the look of the entire area.

The Gillespie Center today.

The Gillespie Center today.

The frontage on Jesup Road near Matsu Sushi, the gardens maintained for years by Jed Ringel and repointing of the brickwork by Brooks Sumberg are visible to all.

Less visible is what goes on inside. But the men and women who seek shelter there — and others who use the very active food pantry — know and appreciate the hard work and tremendous care lavished on the Gillespie Center by many in town over the past 25 years.

Jeff Wieser quotes a friend from Virginia. After touring Homes With Hope’s 10 properties in Westport — the organization supports a lot more than the Gillespie Center — and winding up downtown, he said: “You must be the only town in America with a homeless shelter 2 doors from Tiffany!”

The Gillespie Center  has never lacked for volunteers. (Or — proving that Westport is no different from the real world — clients).

Westporters of all ages volunteer at the Gillespie Center.

Westporters of all ages volunteer at the Gillespie Center.

One of those volunteers was Jim Marpe. Today he’s the latest in a long line of 1st selectmen to support the Gillespie Center. Twenty years ago, he helped stock the pantry, serve meals and clean up.

That’s the kind of support the Gillespie Center has enjoyed for 25 years. If you’re looking for controversy — or a story about an affluent suburb that shunned its homeless — stay away from 45 Jesup Road. You won’t find it there.

All you’ll see are beds, meals, and Westport’s support for our fellow humans, down on their luck.

(For more information on the Gillespie Center and Homes With Hope, click here.)



7 responses to “Gillespie Center: 25 Years Of Shelter From The Homeless Storm

  1. bobbi essagof

    Serving dinner at Gillespie has always been a great way to give back. The people there are always kind, interesting to talk to and so appreciative. My favorite line was a gentleman who told me “This is the only shelter I’ve been to where you can always find ribs in the fridge.” I guess Bobby Q’s does their part too!
    What people don’t realize is that the guests are really happy to have a winter coat, scarves or gloves that you might not need anymore. Twin sheets are also in demand. When you go to serve dinner, bring your teens or friends to help out and they can benefit from the Gillespie experience as well.

  2. Jack Whittle

    I am probably more often proud of our Town than most, and when it comes to the Gillespie Center I am at my proudest. Great article Dan, and of course there are many more that have given their time, food and funds over the years than you could possibly name. The Gillespie Center makes a positive difference in the lives of many men, both young and old, every day. Awesome.

  3. Jeff Wieser, Homes with Hope

    What a nice post that goes right to the heart of all that is good in Westport. Thanks Dan ! And Jack is right: there are SO many others who helped create Interfaith Housing and Homes with Hope, and so many others who help maintain it as a model of the support a suburb can provide to those who are down on their luck. Come help us celebrate 25 years at The Gillespie Center Friday at 3 pm!

  4. What a great investment the Westport community has in the Gillespie Center. t don’t know exactly what my father’s role was but apparently he was in charge of paying the employees at the old Vigilante Firehouse because he sent me there a couple of times to pay Bosco, a night counselor at the Interfaith Shelter. All I remember is being struck by the unexpected and delightful combination of Bosco’s huge physical size and equally huge jolly personality. I felt welcomed and secure by his very presence, but figured he could just as easily portray a “don’t mess with me, I’m in charge attitude” when he needed to. How perfect was that? I wonder what ever happened to him and whether his time there was positive.

  5. Jeff Wieser, Homes with Hope

    Nancy, I know Pete Powell can tell you a lot more of the history of our first, and long time, employee Bosco. And your elegant father was a leader of Interfaith Housing from the start. Our first Treasurer, among many other roles.

  6. Rabbi Robert Orkand

    Thanks for mentioning me. What truly deserves mention, though, and what made Homes With Hope unique was–and still unique–the involvement and support of the religious community. I can think of no better demonstration of the values our varied faiths hold in common. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the ability of Westport-Weston’s faith community to work together was and is part of the uniqueness of this community.

  7. Just about once a month, Stew Leonard’s puts Annie’s Mac & Cheese on sale and gives it a center aisle display (you couldn’t miss it even if you tried!) I use that as my own personal reminder to bring things over to the Gillespie Center. When I see that display, I grab 10 or 15 boxes, have the checkout folks put them in a separate bag and then drop them at the center on my way home from Stew’s. It’s such a small effort but it is always met with such gratitude. I truly admire the dignity and grace that all the folks associated with the center continually display. Perhaps others reading this can can find their own once-a-month reminder to grab a few extras (peanut butter, cookies, cans of soup, whatever) and drop them at the center’s pantry. Trust me, it’s a very worthwhile 10 minutes and $10 out of my month!