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.
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.
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 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).
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.)