‘Off The Streets’ helps individuals experiencing homelessness

DANBURY—The Off The Streets program, focused on getting individuals experiencing homelessness established in stable affordable housing, received numerous donations in July, with the help of St. Mary Church volunteers from Bethel.

The program, founded by former St. Mary Deacon Michael Oles more than 10 years ago, is still going strong in the Greater Danbury area and has expanded to include a chapter in Bridgeport. The program has also been established in several other states including Pennsylvania, where Deacon Oles now lives.

“This is a wonderful program to directly help people in a permanent way,” said Deacon Oles, who admittedly is anxious and eager to establish a chapter in every state. “There’s still more work to be done. It requires people to see the face of the homeless Christ in their midst and step up in their own communities to work hand in hand to help the homeless.”

The all-volunteer group works with area social service agencies to identify those they can help.

Candidates must have a source of income, such as a job or disability income and Off The Streets will supply the security deposit directly to the landlord. The organization will deliver furniture and household goods to transform an empty apartment into a home.

“What makes the program so special is that it’s so simple,” said Beth Davis, one of the volunteers helping to collect the items from donors and temporarily place them in a storage unit.

Items donated include chairs, lamps, dressers and mattresses. The volunteer group has added a special touch by including a laundry basket filled with everyday household items such as napkins, paper towels, laundry detergent, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste to help people moving into their new home have some of the necessities to get started.

“You kind of reach a point where you know what people need,” said Ann Leiss, one of the first volunteers recruited by Deacon Oles. In addition to creating some of the welcome baskets, Ann also cares for the volunteers by bringing them home-baked goodies when they gather for donation collections or other events.

Donations are generally accepted on the first Saturday of every month or are requested when there is a specific need or when the units at the two storage facilities in the Danbury area have space to accommodate more items.

“One thing about the pandemic is that people have been going through their homes, so that’s been a bonanza for us,” said Joe Simons, who is the administrator for the Off The Streets program and an active volunteer at the Dorothy Day Hospitality House, a soup kitchen and shelter in Danbury, where he and Deacon Oles both volunteered.

When Deacon Oles was asked to speak about homelessness to a group of middle school religious education students, he asked a man named Rodney, who was experiencing homelessness, to join him and share his story with the students.

“It all started with students’ desire to get a man experiencing homelessness off the streets,” Deacon Oles said.

The students were so moved by Rodney’s plight that they sent money to Deacon Oles to help him. Deacon Oles, who was not experienced in securing housing for others, did eventually find an apartment and paid the security deposit with the students’ funds. Word soon spread that he could help get people out of homelessness and into housing and he received unsolicited contributions from church groups and individuals to enable him to help more people secure housing and so Off The Streets was born.

“I’m happy so many people are so giving in this area,” said Danelle Hill, a Girl Scout troop mom who was with her daughter dropping off welcome baskets with basic household items to be given to families receiving furniture deliveries.

In the past, the crew of volunteers would gather and load up their personal vehicles to deliver furniture and other items to people in need.

There are about 15 core volunteers and many more may come and go depending on schedules and other commitments.

“Usually, enough people turned out,” said Dan Kallberg, a St. Mary parishioner who donated his time to help receive donations and load a truck for delivery that day. “It always has a way of working out.”

Recently, they received a box truck from local business, Good Directions, and now can do multiple deliveries in a day. They also no longer have to delay deliveries due to inclement weather.

“Having a truck takes the weather out of the equation,” said Simons, adding that most deliveries are on Saturday but they will deliver in the week if enough volunteers are available.

The group has helped about 500 families get “off the streets” and about 80 percent remain housed after a year.

“Our philosophy is everyone deserves a chance,” Simons said. “We do not want people to fail.”

Many times, people with minimum wage jobs cannot afford the bigger expense of furniture and set-up so Off The Streets steps in to fill those needs.

“We are able to fill in the missing pieces to get people into housing and supplement what the agencies are doing,” Simons said.

The work is extremely rewarding.

“We get to be there when they move into their place and to see the expressions on their faces when they move in,” he said. “It means the world to them and it is so gratifying to us too.”

By Kathy-Ann Gobin