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 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.”
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.