Tag Archives: homelessness

High School And Homeless In Westport

Staples students are spending this summer in many ways. Some have paid jobs; others are interns. Some travel, or take courses. A few sleep in every day.

Brian Saunders was homeless.

Until recently, the rising senior lived in a comfortable Westport home. He still does.

But for a full week, he wandered around Westport. He ate cheap or free meals wherever he could. He slept in a car, a doorway and a baseball dugout.

Brian Saunders, a few days after his week of homelessness ended.

Brian Saunders, a few days after his week of homelessness ended.

Brian did all this willingly. Inspired by an AP English reading assignment — Into the Wild — he wanted to experience life without all the possessions he’d grown used to. Homelessness and isolation were foreign concepts to him. A week on his own — in his home town — seemed like a way to gain insights into himself, and others.

Brian — whose extracurricular activities include Kool To Be Kind, Young Democrats and the Circle of Friends program with special needs children — talked to Barbara Butler and Sarah Cocker at Human Services, and Pete Powell, former president of Homes With Hope.

Brian spoke with a Westport police officer, who was not happy with his plan. Neither were school and religious officials, who said he could not sleep on their property because of liability.

His parents were not thrilled either.

But Brian embarked on his mission. He spent hours in the Westport Library. He trudged all over town, carrying a change of clothes in a trash bag. (An actual homeless man scoffed, “We use backpacks. This is not New York City. We blend in.”)

He ate meals at McDonald’s and the Gillespie Center. With only a pillow and blanket — no sleeping bag — he spent uncomfortable nights in a friend’s car, the Coleytown Elementary School Little League dugout, and the doorway of a fitness center.

Brian befriended other homeless people. There was an alcoholic, with 2 children in college. “He’s my parents’ age,” Brian says. “Things just broke down for him.”

Brian learned a lot from talking with residents. Some were regulars at the Gillespie Center, across Jesup Road from the police station.

Brian learned a lot from talking with residents. Some are regulars at the Gillespie Center, across Jesup Road from the police station.

There was a school bus driver who lost his home in the mortgage crisis, and now lives in his car. A former cocaine dealer. And a construction worker who — like many homeless people — shuttles between Westport and neighboring towns.

One man kept telling Brian, “go home.”

Brian learned that — contrary to popular belief that the Gillespie Center kitchen serves up wonderful meals every day, of cast-off dinner party delights —  the reality is far different. The food can be microwaved chicken patties, the social issues fraught, the noise level loud.

“This was really tiring. The nights were cold. But it energized me. It’s the most meaningful thing I’ve done,” Brian says. “It’s made me think about my life, and what I want to get out of it.”

One day, he sat on the lawn next to Restoration Hardware. “It was incredible. I was watching $100,000 cars fly by, talking to a former drug addict with lupus and hypertension who can’t get to a doctor. There was such a contrast between myself, him, and the town.”

This is the face of Westport to many. The homeless are often invisible.

This is the face of Westport to many. The homeless are often invisible.

Brian says his week on the streets provided “a chance for me to slow down, look around, and get some clarification before I move on in life.”

In college he may study neurology, psychology or biomedical engineering. Before that comes senior year at Staples.

Right now, he’s appreciating life back home.

The first thing he did after leaving the street was take a shower. That — and sleeping in his own bed — were “incredible.”

Since then, he’s looked around at all his “stuff.”

“I feel calmer now,” Brian says. “I think I have a better sense of what I want. And what I want to ignore.”

Homeless In Westport

We’ve all seen her around Westport:  the woman with the limp.  We see her on the Post Road; at the Y; in the library.  Some of us wonder if she’s homeless; others of us can’t imagine that anyone here does not have a home.

Some of us think about her after our eyes lock for a few seconds.  Others of us try to forget.

An “06880” reader thinks about her — and more.  He’s spoken with her a few times; now he writes eloquently about her.  Here’s what he says:

Her name is Tina.  She has long, graying blonde hair in a neat bun on the top of her head.  “It keeps me warm at night,” she says.  “I don’t need a hat.”

Her eyes are brown, flirting with too many questions but clear and precise at the conveyance of a $20 bill.  She wears 5 layers of clothing in the cold, and shows off her leather coat insulated by rabbit fur.

“It’s new, too.  Nobody else has owned it,” she remarks proudly.  “I bought it when I had money.”

She wears sandals with several socks.  “The boot place down there,” she points aimlessly in the direction of Main Street, “promised me some boots when it snows.”

Tina has no money, no address, no driver’s license and no home.  “I had an apartment last winter but I don’t trust any of the landlords in this town,” she confides.

Where does she live?  “Oh, I can’t tell you that,” she says in an upbeat mood.  “That is where I keep all my stuff.”  Malone Refuse workers have found her sleeping in their dumpsters.

The homeless in Westport do not look like this. They are much more invisible.

When you first meet this 50-something lady, she is shy and removed.  She continues to walk past you, head to the ground, limping on her right leg.  When you mention money, her mood changes and she talks a blue line.

“I used to live in Hawaii, then California and well . . . all over, you might say.”  She is coherent, with no smell of alcohol on her breath.  Tina says she grew up here, and was a member of the Staples Class of ’71.  The yearbook does not substantiate her claim.

“I went to the old Staples,” she says, “when it was down by the water.”  The dates are wrong.  You don’t correct her.

Her luck turned bad when her brother and mother died, according to her story.  One tries not to judge, but her saga is full of contradictions.  At our second meeting, a long coat and fur hat I found in the basement are rejected.

“If I walk into Oscar’s in that hat, they’ll throw me out and that coat has a satin lining.  No way, brother!”  We talk more.

What about the shelter?  “I have a cat.  They won’t allow me to stay there with my cat.”  There is no evidence of a pet, but that is her story.

“I’m afraid of when the snow comes,” she smiles.  “I don’t mind the cold.  It’s the snow that gets you.”

You mean like dying?  “Yeah.  That’s crossed my mind,” she says.  A rasp accompanies her chuckle.

A call to Town Hall reveals true compassion.  “We know about her,” says coordinator Terry Giegengack. “But we really can’t go into the particulars for privacy reasons.”

The woods beyond the Westport Library riverwalk -- behind the Levitt Paviliion -- is a popular spot for Westport's homeless people. It's a lot less comfortable in December than other times of year.

There is a place for her to stay.  “Tina doesn’t want any part of the indoors.  They’re called ‘campers’,” Terry explains. “They like their lifestyle.  They don’t like to be confined.”

When Tina is told that the Town of Westport has a place for her to live, she replies:  “What, in a insane asylum?”  I assure her it is not.  “Then I should check it out.  Next week maybe.”

When the topic of homeless Tina is brought up at a dinner party where lobster is served the following night,  the reaction is mixed.  Two seem uncomfortable with the topic.  One asks:  “What’s wrong with her?”  I have no answer.  Interest fades.

An elderly woman comments, “it’s sad that in Westport we have this problem.”  My first reaction is that homelessness is only a “problem” for those without a home, but I stuff another bite of lobster down without comment.

Tracy says there are only “4 or 5” people like Tina, who have no place to live in this town.  She uses the word “campers” again, like they’ve lost their RV.

I see Tina a 3rd time —  sneaking out of the YMCA.  “You know sometimes, they let me take a shower there,” she says proudly.

It was cold last night — in the 20s.  I keep the conversation moving as, for some strange reason, I feel uncomfortable around this woman.

“I do okay.  The wind died down.  I’m okay.”  It’s supposed to snow tonight, I say.

“Oh, my, then, I need to get over to Town Hall, shouldn’t I?” she remembers.

I hand her a $20 bill.  “Thank you, I’m starving.  I’m going to Oscar’s to get something to eat.”

But she walks the opposite way.

Wait, Wait…It’s Paula Poundstone!

The world, says Paula Poundstone, is just waking up from a giant party.  There are pizza crusts and broken bottles all around.  We had a good time last night, but this morning we all have to pitch in and clean up — however we can.

That’s an analogy, of course.  But she continues it by offering her own method:  comedy.

Paula Poundstone

Poundstone is a comedian with impeccable credentials:  regular panelist on NPR’s sassy news quiz show, “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me“; 1st woman to perform at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner; star of her own show on HBO and ABC.

She brings her act to Westport on Friday, Sept. 10 (9 p.m., Levitt Pavilion).  It’s Homes with Hope‘s 3rd annual benefit.

So what’s it like to be spectacularly funny at an event to ease homelessness?

“People come to be entertained,” she says.  “The fact that it’s for a good cause is icing on the cake.  If people didn’t want to see me or another comedian, they’d just send in a check.”

Her act combines stand-up with audience interaction.  “Don’t call it improv,” she warns.  “That’s too high-falutin’.  Say that it’s ‘unplanned.’  A lot of stuff unfolds from talking with the crowd.”

Poundstone lives in California, but she grew up in Massachusetts and looks forward to returning to New England.  She doesn’t know much about Westport, though she knows it’s near Stew Leonard’s.  “He’s got that petting zoo and milk thing, right?” she asks.

The first person tor recognize her comedic talents was her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Bump.  “What a great name,” she marvels.  “If Charles Dickens knew anything about kindergarten, he’d have named a teacher Mrs. Bump.”

Told that a Mr. Bump — Fred — was a long-time science teacher in Westport, she wonders if he is part of “the famous Bump teaching dynasty.”

Comedy Central named Poundstone one of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians of all time.  She’s honored, but pays homage to stars who paved the way for her.  “In my home, we very much value the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Bob and Ray,” she says.

They’re all good — but none has Paula Poundstone’s 21st-century sensibility.  On Sept. 10, Westporters will enjoy her razor-sharp wit first hand.

And help a great cause, while laughing very, very hard.

(Tickets are $45 and $100.  Pre-show festivities — including cocktails, catering an an auction — are open to all sponsors and $100 ticket holders, beginning at 7 p.m.  For tickets and more information, click here or call 203-226-3426.

Jeff Wieser Heads Homes With Hope

After his international banking career took him to Australia and Hong Kong, in 1985 Jeff Wieser was posted to New York.  He lived in Westport, but did not feel part of either this town or the city.

“My community was the train,” he says ruefully.

Jeff Wieser

Hoping to engage more with his hometown, he joined Christ & Holy Trinity Church‘s outreach program.  That’s how he met Rev. Peter Powell, the president and CEO of Homes With Hope (formerly the Interfaith Housing Association) — the long-running organization that helps homeless Westporters lead independent, self-sufficient lives.

Jeff joined the board, but soon was transferred to Canada.  When he returned — eagerly — to Westport in 1995, he quickly re-involved himself with IHA.

He served as chairman from 1998 to 2002 — a “wonderful experience” — and remained on the board thereafter.  A year ago, when Rev. Powell announced his retirement, Jeff helped search for a successor.

Some excellent candidates applied, but when — for various reasons — no one was hired, Jeff began thinking about applying himself.  The decision, he says, was “spiritual and exciting.  It was almost like it was meant to happen.”

The 57-year-old felt energized by “the chance to do something full time that I’ve been passionate about for years.”  Homes With Hope is, he says, “a born and bred Westport organization.  It’s one of the very few in the country in an affluent suburb.”

Homes With Hope represents “the incredibly generosity of Westporters who have carried it for so many years,” he says.  Only 10 percent of the budget — about $160,000 — is funded by the state, he notes.  The rest comes from individuals, businesses, foundations and the religious community.

When Jeff assumes his new duties as president and CEO next month, his main task will be “making sure the transition is smooth.  It’s been run for 22 years by a great guy.  My job will be to help it continue to thrive, and be as good a neighbor as we have been for 25 years.”

He faces 2 main challenges:  Providing services every day to 70 or so people who rely on them, and raising funds.

Happily, he says, “we have a great staff.  They’ve been there for quite a while, and they’re excellent.”

Jeff started this interview with a train anecdote, and he ends with one.

One day, riding to New York, he told a friend from Darien about his IHA work.

“You have homeless people in Westport?” the friend asked.

“Yes,” Jeff replied.  “And you do in Darien too.  The difference is, we take care of ours.”

Soon, Jeff Wieser will have an entire homeless organization to take care of.  He can’t wait to begin.