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Program Director Ryan Soto, Case Manager Manny Ramada and President Jeff Wieser hanging out in the Community Kitchen at Gillespie

Featured Article

Homes Is Where the Heart Is

Giving Westport's Homeless Residents the Transformative Power of Hope

Article by Robin Moyer Chung

Photography by John Videler

Originally published in Westport Lifestyle

Remember Peter Cadoux from a few pages back? He used to judge the popular Annual Castles in the Sand Benefit for Homes with Hope. 

Homes with Hope, as you may know, is Westport’s homeless shelter. You may not know that it’s one of only three suburban homeless shelters in the United States and that every bed has been filled every night since 1989.

The Gillespie Center downtown is one of four emergency shelters run by HwH and includes the Community Kitchen, where volunteers make lunch and dinner for anyone who is hungry, and the Food Pantry, which provides non-perishable grocery items.

I met at Gillespie with Jeff Wieser, president and CEO; Paris Looney, vice president and COO; and Ryan Soto, program director. Two homeless men sat in the adjacent community room watching TV.

The office itself is, well, not overly concerned with appearances. A tall stack of neatly enveloped applications attests to the oceans of paperwork they wade through each day.

As we spoke, two students—from middle school and Staples—breezed in. They were volunteering in the food pantry and, yes, they were able to find everything they needed. (Note to my high schooler who may be reading this: What a great idea! Now stop watching Netflix.)

Foremost, they began, HwH is a shelter. Their priority is to provide clients with a bed. Clients may stay up to 90 days as long as they follow the rules: no drugs or alcohol, no weapons, no violence and no verbal threats. Clients are rarely kicked out and rarely need to return after their initial stay.

The caseworkers, all of whom hold masters degrees, figure out what each client needs: income, disability benefits, medical care, referrals to AA meetings, even taking them to appointments if necessary.

If they’re a parent, then registering their child(ren) for school and finding babysitting services. Once Ryan was on the phone finding transportation to the hospital for a pregnant client about to give birth.

This help-however-you-can attitude is what Jeff refers to as “the secret sauce of all the success.”

So, who are the clients? Anyone. Ryan recalls being a child in Danbury, Connecticut, and knowing a man in the community, “a well-liked member we all looked up to.” One day this man showed up at Ryan’s desk.

“Did it shock me? Yeah, as it would anyone else,” Ryan says.

“Families might seem well-off, showing up in Mercedes and Range Rovers but fall into homelessness,” Paris says. “We treat them all with dignity.”

HwH, originally Interfaith Housing, began on Dec. 5, 1984, a year after Ronald Regan cut funding to mental state hospitals. In Westport, homeless Vietnam vets and other displaced patients found comfort at Temple Israel, Assumption Church and Saugatuck Church, among other houses of worship. At night, Saugatuck opened its nursery school so they’d have a decent place to sleep.

At that time, homeless shelters were only in cities. But two parishioners, Jim Gillespie (Saugatuck) and James Bacharach (Assumption), along with Pastor Ted Hoskins and Rabbi Bob Orkand, decided (and I’m wildly paraphrasing) “We have homeless here. Let’s make a shelter here!” And—BOOM! —what would become Homes with Hope was created, and stories of growth and re-creation began.

A few years ago, Jeff sauntered into Panera Bread for lunch. He recognized a man behind the counter but couldn’t place him. Perhaps the man was a fellow banker from his corporate days? 

“Did I commute with him?” he recalls thinking.

The man came up to Jeff and said, “You run Gillespie Center! I was there for six months last year.”

Then, before heading back to work, he added, “You saved my life.”

  • Patio at Gillespie Center
  • Men's dormitory at Gillespie Center
  • Men's dormitory at Gillespie Center
  • Program Director Ryan Soto, Case Manager Manny Ramada and President Jeff Wieser hanging out in the Community Kitchen at Gillespie