An application has been filed to use town-owned Linxweiler House (left), 655 Post Road East, as a temporary homeless shelter while renovations to the Gillespie Center (right) on Jesup Road take place. That project, however, now faces a $300,000 funding gap to carry out as planned.

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Five homeless people could be housed temporarily in town-owned Linxweiler House, 655 Post Road East, while the Gillespie Center — the local homeless shelter — is remodeled this spring, under an application filed with the Planning and Zoning Commission.

That could leave about 10 shelter clients without beds during the shelter’s renovation since it accommodates 15 men. 

But plans to upgrade the center face a bigger problem than that — a $300,000 shortfall in funding for the renovation project, according to Helen McAlinden, president of Homes with Hope, which manages the Gillespie Center.

“The bids came in higher than we expected,” McAlinden said Friday. And the need to house people without shelter is greater than ever, she said. 

The number of people served by the Gillespie Center increased 43 percent from 2022 to 2023, with 1,200 people using Homes with Hope programs last year.

“That’s a big percentage increase. There’s much more need for food and housing now,” she said.

Many who come to the Gillespie Center for shelter, food, counseling or other services are Westport residents, McAlinden added. The shelter also helps families who live Westport Housing Authority apartments, elderly residents and single parents with children, among others.

The Gillespie Center remodeling project, which was expected to begin in May of this year is being funded by a Connecticut Department of Housing/Small Cities Community Development Block Grant. Homes with Hope had previously increased the amount requested for the project by $500,00 in May 2023, bringing the total to $1 million.

“The cost of labor and materials has risen,” and some structural repairs need to be done to the Jesup Road building, Elaine Daignault, director of the town’s Human Services Department, told the Board of Selectwomen before it approved the grant request last year. “We’re going to need additional funding.”

But, almost a year later, there still are what McAlinden called “gaps in funding” for the project. 

The federal funding requires review of the architectural drawings, an environmental review and other standards that must be met, she said, and that can be expensive. “There are a lot of things you have to do when you get governmental money,” she said.

Now, either more money will have to be raised through donations and fundraising events, or the scope of the renovations will have to be cut and delayed. McAlinden said she has already reached out to donors, and the Homes with Hope team will continue working to raise funds. 

Some of the planned improvements to the Gillespie Center include adding four dormers to the second floor to provide more space to work with clients, improving the pantry area to make distributing meals more accessible to clients and safer for volunteers, and renovation to restrooms.

The building, owned by the town, dates to the 1940s and is out of compliance with many current-day safety codes, architect Joseph Migani told the selectwomen last May. The plan also calls for more energy-efficient windows and an upgrade to the building’s utility systems.

McAlinden said that Homes with Hope will gratefully accept donations to help fund the project made through the agency’s website, or to the town and designating the donation for the Gillespie Center project.

Since the Gillespie Center will be closed during renovations, an “8-24 municipal improvement” application to amend the lease at the currently vacant Linxweiler House and make accommodations for a temporary homeless shelter has been filed with the P&Z. The town’s application has not yet been scheduled for a future commission agenda.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman and has taught journalism at New York and Southern Connecticut State universities.