The 12th Annual Reaching Home Celebration Dinner and Housing Awards was a grand affair! The 335 guests in attendance on June 15 were full of energy and came ready to celebrate and to reflect on the work that was done over the past year and the importance of why we all do what we do every day.
The evening kicked off with a networking hour, where guests were chatted with friends, partners, supportive housing tenants, and many new faces from a variety of sectors that are all working towards the goal of ending homelessness and expanding affordable housing. While nibbling on delicious bites from the bruschetta bar, attendees enjoyed an extremely moving art display by local artist Abby Carter, who has been drawing and painting the faces of the many individuals who visit the St. Vincent de Paul Middletown soup kitchen. The social hour even had an appearance by Mrs. Universe Classic, Susan Pagan, whose platform and passion is ending homelessness!
As guests moved to the main ballroom for dinner, Alicia Woodsby, Executive Director of Partnership for Strong Communities, began her “year in review.” Alicia noted the importance of unity in driving our success, and tied that to a quote from Rumi, “The lamps are different, but the light is the same.” She explained how homelessness dramatically dims that light for so many people and that even though each stakeholder might have a different approach or unique methods, the light of our shared goal keeps us all connected in creating this powerful movement for eliminating homelessness.
Alicia then explained that the first Executive Director of the Partnership, Diane Randall, gave the next ED a paperweight that says “Every wall is a door,” and that paperweight was passed on to Alicia when she became ED. There was a note with it in which Diane advised to “try to find the openings in work that is more difficult than it should be.” Alicia explained that CT has figured out a way to do that and reflected on the amazing feats that the state has made over the last few years to prove that point. She noted that there is still more work to be done, and that “we’ll have to remain unified, focused, creative and flexible to continue to maintain our progress and advance our goals.”
Alicia next welcomed Dave Martineau, Executive Director of Mercy Housing and Shelter Corporation, to the stage. Alicia explained to the crowd that Dave is retiring and that the Partnership wanted to honor his incredible career and strong passion for ending homelessness by having him act as Master of Ceremonies. When Dave took to the mic, he spoke about his career and told the crowd, “You are my inspiration, [and] motivation, and I will fight until death so that everyone is housed!” The crowd roared their approval and gave Dave a standing ovation in honor of his incredible career and passion for the work.
Dave introduced Debra Alt, a local songstress/writer who has a mission to play and sing for causes she believes in. She opened with her featured song, Decent Shelter, which was written specifically about the need for decent and affordable housing. She continued to entertain the crowd with her moving music throughout the dinner.
A clip from the 2014 film Time Out of Mind set the stage for the evening’s keynote speaker, Ben Vereen. Ben spoke about his role in Time Out of Mind portraying a homeless individual, and inspired the crowd with his oratory around ending homelessness. “We need to beat the drums now more than ever,” said Ben. The Tony award-winning actor wowed the crowd by performing two different songs, talked about his realization that homeless individuals need hand-ups rather than hand-outs, and spoke about the importance of being a positive role model to youth to keep them out of homelessness. Ben’s stories and enthusiasm inspired the crowd as the work to end homelessness among youth and families accelerates over the next years! After Ben’s speech, he took some selfies with attendees and then went table to table to personally thank everyone for the incredible work they’re doing. What a great sport and passionate humanitarian!
Dave Martineau returned to the stage and kicked off the evening’s Housing Awards. Each honoree received multiple standing ovations throughout the evening, as their work was so inspiring to those in attendance.
The Diane Randall Leadership Award was presented to the leaders within Opening Doors Fairfield County (ODFC) and on the forefront of ending homelessness in Fairfield County; Kathy Hunter, Supportive Housing Works; Carla Miklos, Operation Hope; and Carmen Colon, Alpha Community Services-The Y. This group of women was recognized for their tireless efforts in addressing and raising awareness to ending homelessness. The award was presented to them by Cristin McCarthy Vahey, State Rep., 133rd District – Fairfield, who said, “These three women standing before me have opened minds and hearts through their lifelong careers.” From creating the first Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness for Greater Bridgeport, to chairing the Bridgeport Continuum of Care and spearheading countless initiatives over the past 20 years, the three have been both team members and team leaders who are naturals at cultivating real collaboration. “Collaborative work and collective impact is not easy, but we do this together through hard work and honesty,” said Carmen Colon.
This year’s Rev. Richard Schuster Advocacy Award was given to Paula Crombie of Yale New Haven Hospital. Paula received four separate nominations for this award for her work in the development of the Yale New Haven Hospital/Columbus House Medical Respite Program. Paula and her team have also been pioneers in training physicians, nurses and hospital admissions staff to identify unstably housed patients to ensure social workers can be dispatched to help those in need. In presenting the award to Paula, Carl Schiessl of Connecticut Hospital Association urged that “we need to break down the silos between healthcare and housing.” Paula very humbly accepted her award, sharing her disbelief that she won and how she is constantly thinking, “What can I do better?” Paula spoke about the importance of collaboration and working together, and ended on a note from Cookie Monster -- "Sometimes me think, what is friend? And then me say a friend is someone to share last cookie with."
The Carol Walter Supportive Housing Tenant Award went to two individuals who showed commitment to supportive housing advocacy, leadership skills and an effort to make their communities a better place. The first award was presented by Stacey Violante Cote of the Center for Children’s Advocacy to Natalie Garcia. When Natalie was young, she was rejected by her family because of her gender identity and knew she needed to get away, even though it meant being homeless for a time. Natalie didn’t let that stop her. She went to UConn, got involved with The Connection’s Start Program, and got a job as a research coordinator at the Institute for Community Research’s Youth Action Hub. Natalie is a part of the statewide Youth and Young Adult Homelessness Workgroup and many of its subgroups, and advocates passionately for increasing and improving resources for young people who are struggling with housing instability. She’s done an incredible amount of work at such a young age!
The second award was presented by Commissioner Evonne Klein of the Department of Housing to Willie Thomas Miller, Jr. Commissioner Klein spoke about the tremendous amount of affordable and supportive housing built in Connecticut over the last few years and how stories like Willie’s show just how important housing is. Willie had a rough start to his life, which led to incarcerations and trips to rehab. After years of substance abuse and homelessness, Willie had enough and called 211 and got an appointment with DMHAS’ Homeless Outreach Team, which did his Coordinated Access Network assessment. From there, he went to Operation Hope Shelter where he stayed until entering permanent supportive housing at The Connection’s Milestone Program. With a place to call home, he has worked to change his life by getting and staying clean, volunteering for Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, and advocating for continued funding for the programs that he knows, first-hand, make such a difference in peoples’ lives. In his acceptance speech, Willie proudly said "I swear to God I will help everyone who I can." It was a powerful and touching moment to hear from someone who had been able to turn his life around and focus on helping others do the same.
Janice Elliott of the Melville Charitable Trust presented the Barbara Geller Career Achievement Award to Alison Cunningham of Columbus House. Alison is widely recognized as one of the most astute and passionate advocates for homeless people and their needs. In 1998, Alison was asked to become Columbus House’s Interim Director, and the rest is history. Under her dynamic leadership, Columbus House grew to include shelter and permanent supportive housing services and partnered with Yale New Haven Hospital to provide respite care for newly-discharged hospital patients who were unstably housed. "Leaders are called to stand in the ‘no longer’ and ‘not yet’... we are the ones called to take risks, to change attitudes...," said Alison during her acceptance speech. Alison will have her name added to a commemorative plaque that resides at Geller Commons, a 33-unit affordable and supportive housing complex in Hamden.
After all of the moving speeches throughout the evening, guests left feeling extremely motivated to continue moving forward the incredible work being done to end homelessness in CT!
While timing constraints prevented us from showing this year’s Reaching Home video during the event, we’re happy to now share the emotional stories of CT youth and young adults who have experienced homelessness. Click here to view the video.
Thank you to everyone who joined us for the 2017 Reaching Home Celebration Dinner and Housing Awards! We look forward to seeing you next June! To check out more photos from the event visit our Flickr album.