You know there’s a story behind Westport’s decades-long embrace of a homeless shelter — in the midst of downtown, a few yards away from Tiffany.
In fact, there are many stories. And no one tells them better than Helen McAlinden.
Her first year as president and CEO of Homes with Hope — Westport’s umbrella supportive housing agency — was filled with challenges. COVID — which hit just 2 months after she began — forced residents out of their shelters, and into hotels. It affected everything from volunteers cooking and serving meals, to fundraising.
But — like Homes with Hopes’ clients — Helen weathered the many storms. The other day, she discussed her work, Westport’s response, and many issues around homelessness and food insecurity.
The most recent episode of “06880: The Podcast” is eye-opening. And no one tells that story better — or in an better Irish brogue — than Helen McAlinden. Click here to watch.
It’s been a hard year for Homes with Hope. The Westport non-profit dedicated to ending homelessness in Fairfield County has seen demand for its services rise during COVID. Meanwhile, supporters are stretched thin.
Many Westporters know of the Gillespie Center men’s shelter, and Project Return for young women. But Homes with Hope runs many programs, and does much more.
They’ve just released a compelling video. Produced by Westporter Livio Sanchez, it shows how they act — even in a pandemic — to keep the most vulnerable community members safe. Click below to see:
During 2019-20, Homes with Hope served 1,234 individuals.
The Gillespie Center emergency homeless shelter operated at full capacity to host 126 guests
Permanent supportive housing served 75 individuals
ASAP (After School Academic Program) provided academic support for housing program children and community neighbors
HEAL and Mentoring Initiative programs provided support to young people in our schools and community
The community kitchen and food pantry provided over 21,000 meals and 1,400 bags of groceries.
In March, Homes with Hope pivoted. They implemented new policies and procedures to follow DC and Health Department guidelines. Staff members became front-line heroes.
Client numbers increased. But no one was turned away. Everyone was served safely, and with dignity.
Like many civic organizations, Homes with Hope canceled annual fundraising events, which provide more than a quarter of its operational support.
Yet, says president and CEO Helen McAlinden, “despite the many unknowns that lie ahead, there is one thing of which we are absolutely certain: With the generous support of our community, Homes with Hope will keep sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry as we always have.
“On behalf of Homes with Hope’s staff, clients, board of directors and volunteers, I extend our best wishes to you and your loved ones during this holiday season and the coming year. We thank you for helping us serve Fairfield County’s most vulnerable members of our community.”
When COVID roared through Westport in mid-March, residents hunkered down at home. Life was hard.
For the area’s homeless population, staying home was not an option. Life was infinitely harder.
For over 30 years, Westport has been blessed with — and embraced — a homeless shelter. Located in the heart of downtown — just steps from Tiffany — the Gillespie Center (serving 15 men) and Hoskins Place (4 women) have provided beds, meals, and career and emotional counseling for folks down on their luck.
The Gillespie Center and Hoskins Place.
But living in bunk beds, and sharing common rooms, in the midst of a pandemic was dangerous. Instantly, Homes with Hope — the center’s umbrella organization — found a solution.
Clients were moved to a hotel in a nearby town. Meals (purchased from local restaurants) were delivered to them. In the months since the coronavirus struck, not one of those men or women has fallen ill.
The empty center gave Homes with Hope an idea. This was the perfect opportunity to make needed renovations.
While the clients were away, the men’s residence was repainted. Dividers and wardrobes were installed. A new floor was laid. Thanks to a generous discount from Westport Glass, the showers were redone too.
Beds, wardrobes, dividers and a new floor in the men’s shelter.
Similar updates were made to the women’s shelter.
The common area got new furniture, courtesy of a Westport Woman’ Club grant. It’s not just a meeting place; it’s where the Gillespie and Hoskins residents work with case managers.
Clients will return soon. Though CDC guidelines limit the number of guests now to 10 men, and 2 women, Homes with Hope executive director Helen McAlinden is thrilled to welcome them back.
She is always happy too, to see them leave.
From the moment guests move into the shelter, Homes with Hope’s goal is to have them leave.
Case managers — all with master’s degrees — help residents create individual housing plans, tailored to each individual situation. Case managers also help residents get jobs and connect with family, plus receive medical benefits, and mental health and addiction services.
Homes With Hope staff members Lauren Wachnicki and Pat Wilson in the community room. A Westport Woman’s Club grant provided new furniture.
“I am proud of the staff. What they’ve accomplished is a testimony to their dedication to our mission,” McAlinden says. She gives a special shoutout to Paris Looney, Homes With Hope’s vice president and chief operating officer.
As residents return to the Gillespie Center and Hoskins Place, Homes With Hope will continue its food services too. In addition to meals served to clients, the organization runs a food pantry open to all Westporters. Two bags of groceries — stocked with pasta, sauce, tuna fish beans, rice, tinned chicken and other non-perishables — are available each week.
All of that food comes from donations. For hours of access, or how and what to donate, click here. To learn more about Homes with Hope, and/or donate funds, click here. To find out what else is needed, click here.
It’s been a rough several months for everyone. But Homes with Hope — its leaders, case managers and clients — have weathered the storms.
McAlinden looks forward to re-engaging with everyone. “Westport is very special,” she says. “I’m glad I can be part of this special community, taking care of Fairfield County’s most vulnerable with grace and dignity.
To learn more about Homes with Hope — or schedule an individual tour, before guests return — call 475-225-5292.
Posted onApril 10, 2020|Comments Off on Homes With Hope News: Residents Move; Meal, Pantry Changes Set
It’s hard enough for those of us who own homes, and lead stable lives, to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
But what about our vulnerable neighbors, like the homeless and those in supportive housing?
Fortunately, Homes with Hope helps.
Quietly, quickly and efficiently, the local non-profit has adapted to the crisis. Recognizing the urgent need to keep residents — plus staff and volunteers — safe, they’ve adjusted all their programs.
It’s not easy. But — following the recommendations of the CDC, state of Connecticut and local health officials — they’ve made big changes.
President and CEO Helen McAlinden — in just her fourth month on the job — reports that all residents have been moved from the 3 shelters (Gillespie Center, Hoskins Place and Project Return) to a local hotel. That provides enough space to practice social distancing.
Program directors and case management staff have relocated to the hotel too. They’re assisting clients 24/7.
Gillespie Center residents have been moved from downtown Westport to a hotel.
Effective this Monday (April 13), the community kitchen volunteer program is suspended. However, Homes with Hope still serves people in need (12 to 1 p.m., and 5 to 6 p.m.). Meals for all community kitchen guests and Gillespie residents will be ordered from local restaurants. That protects community members — and supports local restaurants. Click here, then scroll down for details.
The food pantry will remain open on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, from 1 to 4 p.m., to address the needs of the food insecure. However, a new contact-less drop-off and pick-up procedure has been implemented (click here, then scroll down for details).
In addition, McAlinden reports that Homes with Hope’s supportive housing residents (spread throughout Westport, at several sites) are doing well. Case managers are in daily contact, and staff members drop off non-perishable items as needed.
Finally, school lunches continue to be delivered to children in Homes with Hope’s program.
“These changes will help ensure the safety of our entire community,” McAlinden says.
“However, they require extra resources that we will struggle to obtain. Your support to get us through this time is a tremendous help.”
There are two ways to give: through an online donation (click here), and by donating non-perishable food, cleaning supplies and paper goods. Click here for a list of items needed, and the contactless drop-off directions.
“As always, we appreciate your support,” McAlinden says. “Please stay healthy and safe!”
Comments Off on Homes With Hope News: Residents Move; Meal, Pantry Changes Set
The other day, Helen McAlinden had dinner at Jesup Hall.
Looking out the window of the handsome stone building, she saw the Gillespie Center next door. She marveled that one of Westport’s most popular restaurants shares its parking lot with a homeless shelter.
She asked Jesup Hall’s manager what he thought.
“We love it!” he said. “We’re proud of it. We send food over, and help whenever we can. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
That made McAlinden proud too.
And it reinforced her belief that the job she’d just begun was the right fit.
Helen McAlinden is the new president and CEO of Homes with Hope. She took over from Jeff Wieser last month, as only the 3rd head in the 36-year history of Westport’s affordable and supportive housing non-profit organization.
In her own way and style, McAlinden is as accomplished and dynamic as her 2 predecessors: Wieser, and Homes with Hope founder Peter Powell.
The only 3 CEOs in Homes with Hope’s 36-year history. From left: Peter Powell, Helen McAlinden, Jeff Wieser.
The daughter of a coal miner, she emigrated from her native Ireland to the US right after high school.
Following stints as a babysitter and eldercare worker, she earned a business degree from Manhattan College. The next step was Wall Street.
But after 9/11, McAlinden felt compelled to do something different. She’d already been feeding homeless people through Irish centers in the Bronx and Yonkers. Inspired by the memory of her uncle — a US servicemember, but not an American citizen, who was killed in the Korean War — she also worked with homeless veterans.
McAlinden left Wall Street, earned a master’s in social work at Fordham University, then spent 18 years at a Bridgeport supportive housing agency.
She knew Wieser through his work on affordable housing initiatives. When she heard he was retiring, she applied. The process took nearly a year.
But Homes with Hope’s thoroughness paid off. She is the perfect person for this extremely important post.
Her first month has been a whirlwind of learning — about programs, people, and the town. But, she says, “This doesn’t feel like a job. It’s something I’ve always loved: dealing with homelessness in a professional way.”
At the end of the day she leaves her Richmondville Avenue office, and heads to the Gillespie Center. She meets “the lovely people who reside there, getting ready for the next step, and all the generous volunteers.”
She is very impressed by Westport’s embrace of Homes with Hope.
“So many affluent communities think there is no homelessness there,” she says. “But people struggle everywhere. We have a shelter right behind Tiffany. Westporters recognize that. And they go out of their way to help.”
On Saturday, for example, McAlinden spent hours with the Sunrise Rotary Club, at a table outside Stop & Shop.
“Many people bought one thing for themselves, then came outside to Rotary Sunrise volunteers with a big bag of groceries for the food pantry,” she says. “Amazing!”
Westporters also help with their time, energy, clothes — and money.
“We get very few federal and state dollars,” McAlinden notes. “The people in this town keep our operations going.”
Many involve their own children. “It seems they want their kids to learn about doing good. They see their parents are giving, kind people.”
Helen McAlinden (far left) at the Gillespie Center with (from left) Allyson Gottlieb, Ian O’Malley, both Homes With Hope board members, and Kathy Knapp, Steve Knapp and Emma Knapp of Christ & Holy Trinity Church, who served dinner. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)
The CEO has been impressed too with Westporters’ embrace of her. Wieser — who stayed on an extra month to help with the transition — shepherded her from meeting to meeting, introducing her to everyone in his vast network.
The other day, she met Police Chief Foti Koskinas. “He’s a lovely man,” she observes. “He talked about the importance of treating everyone with respect. Along with the fire department and EMS, everyone wants to work together. There’s a real sense that everyone in town can help get someone back on track.”
Wherever she goes, McAlinden has been made to feel — well, at home.
Now, she turns her attention to the future. As well respected as Homes with Hope is she senses that many newcomers to Westport — young moms and dads, with little kids — don’t know about Project Return (for young women in crisis), Bacharach Community (for mothers with children), and other programs and sites.
Even the Gillespie Center men’s shelter may be “a hidden secret” to them, she says.
The new leader will use social media to reach these new residents. She wants to offer tours to interested groups. “Community organizations, PTAs — anyone can contact me!” she says. (Her email is email@example.com.)
In her few off hours, McAlinden spends time with her husband and 16-year-old daughter. She enjoys visiting her mother and family on their sheep and cattle farm, back in Ireland.
In fact, she laughs, Westporters are not much different from the Irish. Both groups are “welcoming and inviting.”
And wherever she is — Ireland or Westport, the Homes with Hope office or Gillespie Center — Helen McAlinden feels at home.
It’s not easy following in Jeff Wieser’s footsteps.
But Helen McAlinden seems like a home run.
Homes with Hope has selected the widely respected affordable and supportive advocate to serve as the organization’s next president and CEO.
For the past 35 years, Homes with Hope has addressed the needs and challenges of homeless families and individuals — and those at risk of becoming homeless.
Its services include case management; a food pantry and soup kitchen; emergency shelters for single adults and young women ages 18 to 24; permanent supportive housing; mentoring; youth education, and life skills training.
Wieser is retiring, after leading Homes with Hope through a period of enormous growth. McAlinden succeeds him on January 6.
She brings 17 years’ experience with The Connection, Connecticut’s largest social services provider.
McAlinden’s most recent position was director of homeless outreach and development. She oversaw The Connection’s Supportive Housing Fairfield County program, HomeWorks, Milestone and the Women’s Recovery Support programs.
She is a frequent presenter at the state and national levels on issues related to affordable and supportive housing; a member of the Women and Children’s Legislative Workgroup, and an executive team member of Opening Doors of Fairfield County.
“Helen brings a strong passion to her work and has been a powerful advocate for the homeless throughout her career,” said Homes with Hope board chair John Walsh.
“We are confident that her energy, sensitivity and proven leadership working with people in need of supportive housing will strengthen and expand our network of partners and funders. I am impressed with Helen’s understanding of what makes Homes with Hope so special, and her deep commitment to addressing the challenges of homelessness.”
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