Greenwich church’s commitment to helping the homeless grew from one family

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GREENWICH — Roland Kistler of Greenwich didn’t know what to expect back in 2008 when he arrived one Sunday at Pacific House — the only men’s homeless shelter in lower Fairfield County.

Kistler had agreed to help serve a meal to about 100 men at the Stamford-based emergency shelter with his wife and two sons, who all felt a similar and undeniable need to give back to the community.

“When they finished the meal, everyone applauded and thanked us, and I don’t think my sons ever experienced that amount of gratitude in that form,” he said Monday morning. “It really was quite moving to them.”

What started as one family’s effort to help fill a need in the community, evolved to include 50 more volunteers carrying out the same mission. Greenwich High School students, local residents and members of the Round Hill Community Church in Greenwich — which the Kistler family has long attended — are among the many who have joined in the effort to support Pacific House clients.

While the longstanding partnership between the Greenwich church and Pacific House dates back at least 25 years, the Kistler family’s single act of reaching out to offer nourishment deepened an already powerful and critical relationship, according to Pacific House staff.

On Friday night, Pacific House will honor the church for its decades of service at its 18th annual gala, with Round Hill Community Church receiving the designation as the 2019 Community Honoree.

“Its our way of saying thank you and being able to acknowledge their efforts,” Pacific House Executive Director Rafael Pagan Jr. said of the church. “Round Hill is representative of the different congregations throughout southern Fairfield County that are supportive of our mission.”

The Rev. Dan Haugh of Round Hill Community Church said they are honored. “We think outreach is part of our DNA,” he said. “I think Pacific House has helped us live out our mission.”

The event serves as a major fundraiser for the nonprofit social services organization, bringing in about a third of the funds raised each year for Pacific House. Individuals and local agencies that support Pacific House’s mission are honored at the annual event, which includes cocktails, dinner, dancing, live and silent auctions, and live music.

The funds help Pacific House’s efforts to get homeless individuals back onto their feet. Shelter leaders estimate that they help 275 people each day, and as a result of their ability to secure permanent housing for formerly homeless people, the organizations saves taxpayers save $15 million annually.

The partnership between the congregation and Pacific House began when Round Hill Community Church leaders started financially supporting the shelter. And the church’s commitment to Pacific House took on a more intimate tone, about a decade ago, when Kistler began serving meals there.

“They’ve been a longstanding supporter of our organization,” Pagan said. “The relationship goes back many, many years preceding me. They’re involved with volunteerism, they’re involved with serving meals and they support us financial as well.”

Over the past year or so, the church has strengthened its commitment to the nonprofit, with its mission of supporting individuals and families as they transition from homelessness to housing.

Last November, ahead of the holidays, 20 or so congregation members decorated supportive housing units for the formerly homeless individuals who just moved into their own homes. A month before that, the church pitched in by donating Christmas trees and ornaments. Recently, the congregation also led a towel and toiletry drive after shelter leaders expressed a need for those items.

They have often struggled to raise funds to cover the shelter’s operating budget, said Pagan. Just to keep the doors open, it costs $1 million, he said. Less than half of its budget comes from state and federal government funding; it must fundraise for the rest, he said.

Round Hill Community Church stepped in to financially support Pacific House after the 2008 recession, a time when many local social services agencies had to roll back their services, said Pagan.

On that first Sunday in 2008, when Kistler visited the shelter with his family, he was struck by the need that existed in his own backyard. When asked why it’s still important for him to keep serving dinners there, he said, “Now, it’s just a habit for me.”

Pacific House provides services for those who not only struggle with homelessness but who also have co-occuring health issues. It is not uncommon for clients to arrive at the emergency shelter with substance abuse issues, mental health problems or physical illnesses. Staff at the emergency shelter run three programs that provide case management, sobriety and employment services and a pathway to permanent housing, said Pagan.

“We deal with the most vulnerable,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons the shelter remains “low-barrier.” Unlike most other shelters, it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Pagan. Pacific House accepts clients who may be intoxicated when they arrive looking for help. At some other shelters, that is against the facility’s policy.

Kistler and Haugh said, for them, there’s no end to the volunteerism at Pacific House.

“We see that there’s still homelessness in Stamford and Fairfield County, and we care deeply about trying to end that, and to eliminate all forms of poverty,” said Haugh. “We want to continue to be actively involved until poverty is gone or diminished.”

Over the years of volunteering at Pacific House, Kistler has seen fewer clients needing his services.

“At least 50 people have moved on since,” he said. “We used to serve 60 to 90 or 100 people a night, and now it can be from 25 to 40.

“These are people who would normally be at the shelter. Now they’ve been able to transition” to permanent housing,” Kistler said.

Friday’s gala begins at 6 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich at 1800 E. Putnam Ave. Tickets are for sale online. For more information on Pacific House, visit its website at pacifichouse.org/.

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