Every night, more than 500,000 people in the United States experience homelessness. Here in Connecticut it can be easy to become immune to that figure, but the reality is that on any given day, over 700 people in Fairfield County are without a place to live. Open Doors, the only operating shelter in Norwalk, is hoping to change that statistic. The mission of Open Doors is to make a direct impact in the greater Norwalk area – which includes Darien, New Canaan, Westport, and Wilton – by guiding every person in the cycle of homelessness toward housing stability.
Homelessness and housing insecurity can sometimes be compartmentalized as simply an urban problem, but it is more pervasive than people realize, affecting those in our own communities. The cost of living, particularly in Fairfield County is increasing at a significant rate and debt can quickly snowball if you’re unprepared. “Sometimes changes such as divorce, major medical expenses, or the loss of a job can upend your budget and if you don’t have the savings; that’s how it can all start,” says Open Doors Executive Director Michele Conderino. The services at Open Doors – all of which are free – are available to help people stabilize their situations so they don’t lose their homes. “We want people to know that we are so much more than just a shelter,” says Yolanda Mateo, Director of Client Services.
“We recognized that the lack of affordable housing in Fairfield County was one of the biggest barriers people were experiencing when trying to exit homelessness,” Conderino says. According to the most recent Out of Reach study conducted by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the annual income needed to secure a one-bedroom apartment in greater Norwalk area is $68,000. Approximately 31% of households in Norwalk make less than $50,000 a year. Open Doors has committed to increasing the amount of available affordable housing in the region.
Open Doors utilizes the Housing First Approach. “When people come into the shelter, our number one goal is to get them into sustainable housing, because without that foundation, nothing else really can improve,” says Conderino. Open Doors currently has 55 units of affordable, permanent housing. “We’re committed to getting people to be able to stay in their communities. We don’t do transitional or temporary housing,” says Mateo. Open Doors also has a street outreach program in which a dedicated team goes out and connects with people living outside. Even if the individual chooses not to come into the shelter, Open Doors still offers them the same level of case management to help them attain permanent housing.
To address other concerns of those without housing or who are dealing with housing instability, Open Doors operates a soup kitchen that serves meals seven days a week, 365 days a year. They’ve also established the Children’s Resource Center, which offers childcare, homework assistance, enrichment, and a safe space for children staying at the shelter to socialize with other kids in the same situation. “There’s a wide spectrum of experiences in dealing with homelessness, so it’s nice to have a place where they can just be kids,” says Conderino.
Busier Than Ever
As with most things in life, Covid-19 has had a direct impact on Open Doors and the necessity of the work they do in the community. The economic fallout of Covid is still unveiling. “We are now looking at a potential wave of people, that if they don’t get services and help, are going to find themselves homeless,” Conderino says.
The recently opened Smilow Life Center reflects the holistic services that Open Doors provides and has been an important addition during these challenging times. “The best way to end homelessness is to prevent it from happening to begin with,” Conderino says. In addition to 16 affordable housing units on the second floor, there’s a food pantry and Community Closet which offers food and clothing to those who need it. The building also contains the Norwalk Community Health Center which provides free medical and behavioral
Finally, the Financial Opportunity Center hopes to help people establish financial security. Open to anyone in the greater Norwalk area, it consists of three core components. The first step is to assess what income benefits might help keep an individual in housing. “People often think that if they are employed, they won’t qualify for services but oftentimes, they can. We help navigate the system for them,”
The Financial Opportunity Center also offers employment coaching and placement; this can consist of assistance with resume writing, practicing interview skills or connecting people with job placement.
Lastly, they offer a financial coaching program to help people increase their savings and credit scores while decreasing their debt. Open Doors is initiating a savings matching program that will encourage people to take steps toward financial stability. “We’re here to help,” says Conderino.
To continue to provide for the greater Norwalk area, Open Doors relies on monetary and supply contributions. They’ve partnered with many entities in Wilton and Ridgefield including the Wilton Congregational Church, St. Luke’s School, Fairfield County Bank, St. Mary’s Church, and Wilton Fit Body Boot Camp, all of whom have helped with fundraising and donations. There are also some fun events that can benefit the shelter such as the New Canaan Turkey Trot, the Ridgefield Running Club Turkey Transit, and a paddleboard race in Rowayton.
The Open Doors website has a convenient volunteer portal which lists a variety of ways to help, such as holding clothing drives or helping in the food pantry. Volunteering at The Financial Opportunity Center is another way to make a difference. “We have opportunities for people to bring their individual skill sets to a population that might not have had access to those skills before,” says Conderino.
Open Doors has an ambitious goal of eliminating homelessness in the greater Norwalk area. Conderino says, “We can achieve this goal by working together to guide community members through each step on their journey to success.”
For more information or to volunteer, please visit opendoorsct.org •