Photo: Sophie Vaughan / Hearst Connecticut Media
Originally published in Westport News on September 7, 2018 by Sophie Vaughan.
WESTPORT — Just before the start of Columbus Day weekend in 2009, Jeff Wieser ran into one of his fellow board members from Homes with Hope while on the train to his job as an international banker in New York City.
The national search to find a new leader for the Westport-based homeless support organization had turned up empty, the board member said, and asked if Wieser would consider the position.“I said what are you talking about, I’m a banker,” Wieser remembers.
As fate would have it, however, the request came at a time when Wieser was ready for a change and banking, tainted by the raging financial crisis, sucked, Wieser said. “I always say if it hadn’t been a three-day weekend I’d probably still be a banker. It gave me the extra day to contemplate what this life would be like,” Wieser said.
Expecting blowback, Wieser presented the proposition to his wife, Pat Wieser, but she was supportive of the idea and reminded Wieser he’d wanted to pursue nonprofit work ever since the family first moved to Westport in 1985.
“I was commuting to New York, but I wasn’t really a part of New York, and I wasn’t really a part of Westport and I wanted to get more involved,” Wieser said.
At the time, the Wieser’s had recently returned to the U.S. after living overseas for nearly seven years in Sydney, Australia and Hong Kong for Wieser’s job at the bank Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, where Wieser, a Warren, Ohio native, and boarding school alum, began work following his graduation from Princeton University with a degree in English.
Itching to be part of a community after several overseas moves, Wieser joined Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and became head of its outreach committee, through which he learned of the town’s Interfaith Housing Association (later named Homes with Hope), which ran a homeless shelter for single men in town.
Wieser joined the association’s board but was soon transferred to Toronto, and the family again moved, but only for two years before returning to Westport, now with a third child in tow. Wieser rejoined Homes’ board and organized its capital campaign and served as board chairman for a time, which led him, that day in 2009, to be called on to lead the organization.
“I certainly wasn’t qualified for this job, but I fit so nicely into this particular organization at this particular time that it was really a lot of serendipity. Working a job like this where people open up to you about things they normally wouldn’t open up to you about, you just realize what serendipity there is in this world, or how things happen you don’t expect, or would never have expected,” Wieser said.
The founding of Homes with Hope, one of only three homeless shelters in the country located in an affluent suburb, was as serendipitous as Wieser’s rise to its helm. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s administration cut funding for mental health hospitals and as a result, mental health facilities released a lot of patients, many of whom were subsequently homeless and returned to their hometowns.
Leaders of Westport’s religious organizations noticed the rise of homeless people in town, mostly men who gathered outside the Saugatuck Congregational Church, and formed the Interfaith Housing Association that, in 1984, gained permission from the town to turn the second floor of an old Westport firehouse into a 10 bed homeless shelter for single men.
“I joke about what if I walked into Town Hall today and said I wanted to put a homeless shelter right across Jessup Green from the library? How could this ever have happened?” Wieser asked, adding, “somehow there wasn’t any protest. It just happened, and the Gillespie Center has now been there one year shy of 30 years.”
Over the years Homes has grown to include emergency shelter programs and permanent supportive housing for individuals and families at 10 area locations and under Wieser’s tenure, the organization’s housing capacity has increased from 80 to 115 people each night.
While the organization is centered around housing, the real business is counseling and casework because many of the residents have mental health issues and need help getting on their feet, Wieser said.
Wieser visits the soup kitchen at the Gillespie Center most days at 5 p.m. to connect with the residents and thank volunteers, but said he’s not a caseworker or social worker. “I’m kind of a manager, and I really have fun doing that part of the job. It’s fun running an organization this size and being free of the bureaucracy of a great big multinational bank,” Wieser said.
Wieser prides himself on the fact that the Gillespie Center lies only two doors from Tiffany’s and said the presence of Homes, which receives monetary contributions from 900 Westporters every year, provides a wonderful juxtaposition and place where young affluent Westporters can serve meals to 30 homeless people every night in their own town.
“Everybody complains we live in a bubble. Here we are, we are an opportunity to meet homeless people and see what life is like on the other side,” Wieser said.
Going forward, Wieser wishes more towns will look to Westport as an example and grow something like Homes in their town. “Truly, the biggest hope would be that other towns recognize what we built here and that it can sustain and enhance and add to the moral fiber of the community,” Wieser said.
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