Those of you following The Giving Back Society on Facebook have already had a sneak peek of my reaction to this week’s event because I was so inspired that I jumped on a FB live afterwards and shared my thoughts. But, there was so much more to the story and I’m excited to dig in and share those details.

I attended a public tour of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center here in my city. I hadn’t heard of this group before, but the event popped up in my Facebook newsfeed and I was curious.

I will be honest with you, though, I was also apprehensive. I was a bit worried about what this tour would entail — I was afraid it was going to feel like an exploitation of some kind — walking around and staring at homeless people like a zoo exhibit. But, I am really happy to say that the experience was nothing at all like that. It was informative, inspirational and very respectful. And one that I would highly recommend. (They do these monthly for those of you who are local).

So, let me dig in and share what I learned about the work these great people are doing and also what you and I can do to help them!

Firstly, the NLHHC “provides hospitality and a bridge to permanent housing for single adults experiencing homelessness in Southeastern Connecticut.” (It turns out that families have a different path to follow should they fall into homelessness, just fyi.) Their history is a story of people who saw a need and decided to take action to help — your standard nonprofit background story, but a lot of work and dedication required. It was founded in 2006 and at its humble beginnings was space in a room of a church with mats on the floor. Now they have a cluster of buildings (or one larger oddly shaped building — I couldn’t quite tell) that were clean, welcoming and filled with resources for those needing their services.

So our tour group gathered around a table in a room that we later discovered was their Help Center, and their very warm and welcoming Executive Director, Catherine Zall, started to talk about their work. Below is a picture of our group (with photo credit going to New London Mayor Michael Passero — more on his appearance in a bit) — you’ll see Catherine in the yellow/black plaid (and me next to her furiously scribbling notes):

Photo credit: New London Mayor Michael Passero

What was extra special about our talk (because it was more of a chat than a lecture) was that three people who have been through the Center joined us to talk about their experiences. Hearing their stories of how they ended up homeless and how the Center has helped them was both heart-breaking and heart-warming, if that makes sense. It really puts you in their shoes — what do you do if all of a sudden you don’t have a place to spend the night? I think that was further impacted by the 28˚F temperatures that night. This can truly be an issue of life or death. (I was relieved to hear that on cold winter nights, the Center doesn’t turn anyone away — they move tables, put mats on the floor and everyone who shows up stays warm and safe that night.)

So, as you have probably figured out, a major part of what the NLHHC does is to “be a first response for people who find themselves homeless.” Over the years they’ve also expanded their program to offer not only overnight accommodations, but a place to go in the daytime as well. Like their Help Center which has computers for job hunting, because as Catherine pointed out, “if you’re homeless at night, you’re also homeless during the day.” (Moments like this it comes back to me with brutal force of just how lucky and privileged I am. I have a place to spend time during the day — it’s humbling to be reminded of how special that simple luxury is to others.)

Focusing back on their mission, we also learned at the talk/tour that the second part of their focus is helping people get out of homelessness. And this is where their support system became really interesting to me. Catherine shared some quick stats that the average stay for a guest at the Center was 40 days and half are out in two weeks. They assist in various ways including the Help Center, which I mentioned, as well as help with specific needs that can make all of the difference in the resident’s success. For example, $15 so that they can get a copy of their birth certificate (which is what you need in order to get all of your other identification cards updated) or a black pair of pants for someone who landed a job waiting tables, but couldn’t afford the uniform. These targeted items can make or break someone’s chances to get back into a home of their own.

The Center also works closely with local landlords and helps with first/last/security for guests who are making the transition back into housing. I was also very impressed by a program that have in place for any of their guests who are employed — they are required to put aside a certain amount of their income into their own private savings account for later use when they move into their own place. So, as I hope you can see, they really look at the various ways (big and small) of how they can help people get back into a place to call their own. But, listening to the special guests talk, as well as the volunteers present, it was clear that the focus was on empowering the guests, not enabling them — the guests have to do most of the legwork to get where they want to go.

The third main focus of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center was to offer a variety of services, many of which were medical. They have a Community Health Center with an APRN there four days a week and can handle medically-assisted treatments right on site. While there’s so much more to this part of their offering, at the core, they want to recognize particular causes that can lead to homelessness and address those issues as well (which includes working with other local nonprofits who focus on some of these areas).

I have to say that I wasn’t expecting the (monthly) tour to have 9 other people attending, but it was great to see our community’s interest! Then, part way through the presentation we had three others join our group which really impressed me — State Representative Anthony Nolan and State Representative Joe de la Cruz, as well as our city Mayor, Michael Passero. It was really interesting to hear them speak as to why they were there (staying connected to local issues and programs) and also their take on the issue of regional centers and where the financial burdens land. (Interesting to note that this Center is the only one in Southeastern CT and other towns send their homeless over.)

So, I will admit that I was really impressed that these three government officials showed up to take the tour (which they do from time to time so they were well familiar). And this wasn’t a set up moment for the press — there were no cameras in sight. It felt very genuine and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing them contribute to the talk as it added a whole other dimension.

At the end of the event I have to admit that I was very moved by the work these people were doing and very proud that our community has a center like this to help those in need. And I think in the end they are offering more than just a place to stay or a path out of homelessness — I really felt that they were offering dignity. Catherine made a particular statement that really resonated with me: “Sometimes you just need someone to know your name, hear your story and say that it’s going to be okay.”

I’d like to thank Catherine and the other volunteers at the NLHHC for taking the time to share their work with our tour group, plus the government officials who stopped in and shared their stories and insights, but most of all I would like to thank the three gentlemen who opened up and shared stories about their most vulnerable struggles for all of us to learn from. They were so brave in my eyes and I’m so happy to hear how much progress they are making towards a place to call their own.

As for what you and I can do to help, here are some steps:
1. Find your local homeless center and connect. Take a tour like this one if they offer it. Raise your own level of awareness of how the issue of homelessness is being addressed in your community.
2. Connect with your state representatives and local government and make sure that they know who is focusing on this issue and how they can support them.
3. Volunteer. The NLHHC has a bunch of different roles for volunteers to fill.
4. Send money/donate. (This was actually their first answer when I asked how we can help, just to be clear.)
5. Donate items from their “shelter needs list”. They had a specific list for their Center, so I would check with where you want to donate before sending things over.
6. Create a housewarming kit for those transitioning out of homelessness. I just found this one on NLHHC’s website and loved the idea — if it’s too expensive for your budget, organize a fundraiser at work or gather some friends, head to Target and shop together for this great cause!

#GivingBack #HelpingTheHomeless #WhatsYourCause?

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