The Invisibles: An Investigation into Westport’s Out-of-Shelter Homeless Community

Isaac Stein

Some members of Westport's homeless community can be found in and around the Westport Public Library. Many utilize library services, including internet access.

Isaac Stein, Web Editor-in-Chief

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One Man’s Story
They live in automobiles. They can be found in and around public facilities; the library, the pool, the Levitt pavilion. They are residents of the Town of Westport. According to Lieutenant Arthur Belile of the Westport Police Department, they number less than five.

They constitute Westport’s out-of-shelter homeless population.

The Gillespie Center, Westport’s homeless shelter, offers 23 beds for overnight residents: 19 for men and four for women. While Jeff Wieser, President of the Gillespie Center, holds that the shelter usually has available space for overnight stays, some homeless Westporters prefer to stay out of the shelter after nightfall.

One such resident, Milton C. Marhoffer, who currently sleeps in his automobile, said that he is homeless due to unfortunate circumstances.

“During this past May, I suffered a stroke. I couldn’t pay my medical bills or complete payments on my mortgage, so the bank foreclosed on the house. I couldn’t come up with the $25,000 that they wanted, so as a result, I’ve been homeless ever since,” Marhoffer said.

While Marhoffer sometimes eats meals at the Gillespie Center, and often utilizes the library’s Internet services, he said that he would prefer not to stay in the shelter overnight because he takes issue with the center’s Code of Conduct.

According to Weiser, the Gillespie Center maintains certain rules in order to maintain order and proper conduct within the shelter. The rules include a 10 p.m. curfew and a ban on all drugs, with the exception of tobacco products, which are permitted outside the shelter’s doors.

In speculating as to the reasons behind why individuals would not seek to stay in the shelter while homeless, Weiser believes that there could be a variety of psychological obstacles, depending on the individual.

“There are some people that would prefer to not stay overnight because they do not want to conform to the rules of the shelter, especially the zero-tolerance policy. Sometimes, there are also other people who have serious mental illness, and potentially severe paranoia. Finally, there might be some people that are just independent minded, and would prefer to not depend on others for shelter,” said Weiser.

In contrast, Marhoffer claims that his primary reason for not going into the shelter is that a variety of prescription drugs that he uses as post-stroke medications are barred by the Gillespie Center’s drug policy.

Marhoffer said that the prescription drugs in question are benzodiazepines.Benzodiazepines, according to information provided on the FDA’s website, are classified as a Schedule IV substance due to a considerable potential for user addiction.

Wieser said that while the Gillespie Center conducts drug testing in order to ensure public safety from illegal recreational drugs, he was unsure of whether benzodiazepines in particular were banned from the shelter. He also stated that he was unaware of any drug-related incident that barred Marhoffer from overnight stays at the shelter. However, Marhoffer noted that he, along with other mobile homeless people in the Westport area, have wrangled with legal issues beyond drugs—their place of residence.

Letter of the Law

According to Belile, the police Lieutenant, living out of a vehicle in a public parking lot—which Marhoffer has been doing for the past three months—is “technically illegal.”
Nonetheless, Belile explains there is a large discrepancy between how individual homeless cases are handled, especially when controlled substances are involved.

“If people are just living out of their cars for a while, with no intention of causing a disturbance, then [the police force] will most likely leave them alone. We never want to punish; our goal is to potentially relocate or help these people. The major cause towards relocation or punishment arises when hard drugs are involved, because our primary objective is always to protect the community,” Belile said.

Marhoffer said that while he doesn’t consume illegal substances, the actions of those around have led to police intervention, which has forced him to relocate at least once.
“There were these two middle-aged women from neighboring towns who shared a local parking lot with me up until July. Unfortunately, their actions were completely idiotic…in addition to regularly using drugs, they would completely undress while blasting loud music outside. I’m still disappointed that I was kicked out of the parking lot by being lumped in with their conduct,” Marhoffer said.

However, Belile stresses that the objective of the Westport Police is not to condemn Westport’s homeless who elect to stay out of the shelter, but rather to try to coordinate the Gillespie Center’s social workers with the individuals in question. In keeping with Belile’s statements, Wieser said that anyone who enters the Gillespie Center’s doors is assigned a social worker, which manages individual cases with the intent of finding solutions to the person’s homelessness.

To the Future

With the intent of assisting Westport’s homeless, including the chronically homeless, who are people that have remained in a recurrent homeless state for several years, Wieser said that the Gillespie Center’s services are open to all people who seek them out. However, he emphasizes that the onus is upon the individual to want to be helped. In contrast, Marhoffer suggests that local services should do more to make social programs more visible.

“To be frank, I didn’t know that the social work program existed until about a month ago. Once I found out, I signed up. Homeless people aren’t going to use services they aren’t aware of. Going forward, my hope is that programs with the intent to help people are made more visible. With my case, well…we’ll see how it goes,” Marhoffer said.

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