NORWALK, Conn. – Stew Leonard Jr. says he can't imagine his four children not having a home.
Leonard, dairy store owner, and Ruthann Walsh, director for corporate citizenship at Pepperidge Farm, are now "Business Community Champions." They are on a newly formed committee of community leaders who hope to reduce – or even eliminate – the number of homeless people in Norwalk.
Specific goals of the group include 250 additional affordable housing units and 150 permanent supportive housing units, designed for people with mental health and substance abuse issues.
"As veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan come home we expect an influx, and we hope to better coordinate our social services for them but also to create 40 additional housing opportunities," said Adam Bovilsky, director of Norwalk's human relations department.
The Greater Norwalk Regional Alliance to Prevent and End Homelessness was announced Wednesday on the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of the Greater Norwalk 10-year Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, which was federally mandated. Walsh helped work on that plan and referred to Mayor Richard Moccia's comment that it would be useless if it sat on a shelf. "To see the plan going into an implementation phase is especially rewarding. ... So often a plan does just sit on people's credenzas, but I think that all of us agree that homelessness is such a critical, dire issue that we must take action," she said.
Moccia and David Kennedy are co-chairmen of a leadership council for the new alliance, along with Walsh and Leonard. Beneath them is a steering committee, led by David Rich and Barbara Butler, to coordinate activities and raise funds. They oversee four work groups of active community members – including those experienced in leading nonprofit groups and those who work with public housing – and two men who have experienced homelessness, Stanley Shuler and Westport Police Officer Craig Bergamo.
"The goal is to reduce the need for homeless services in this town," Bovilsky said, adding that the group will look at other plans to mine the best ideas. The addition of Walsh and Leonard gives Norwalk's plan a different outlook.
Ideas include one-time grants to people who "but for a signal financial hurdle in their path will be able to maintain their housing on their own," and a cash assistance fund for homeless people who need help with security deposits for apartments.
"We will maintain a complete housing and homelessness database so that multiple agencies can access it and update it and we can keep track and better understand our homeless population," Bovilsky said. "We will increase the collaboration among the communication between our social service agencies so that we can do more with less because this is the economy of less."
Committees will work to make sure the homeless receive the maximum benefits from government programs. "We are going to create a comprehensive, user friendly and centralized homelessness information and referral system that is going to include information on homelessness prevention, crisis intervention and training in employment and in financial literacy," Bovilsky said.
The goal is not to build more shelters, Moccia said, adding homelessness costs cities money in police patrols and hospital bills, but that the cost of homelessness to families and children is incalculable. He called on the community to help.
Leonard said, "This is a great effort that we have and definitely we would love to have homeless never be an issue around us, but it has to start with all of us. We hope we can put a dent in this and reverse the trend, hopefully we can stand here and one day there won't be any homeless."
The regional alliance is a partnership of private, governmental, and non-profit organizations. The regional alliance is supported in part by the city of Norwalk, the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County, the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, and the Greater Norwalk Continuum of Care.