Amos House: Local Residents Among Those Helping Women And Children Out Of Homelessness
DANBURY — Newtown residents are among those directly involved with Amos House, a nonprofit organization in Danbury dedicated to ending the cycle of homelessness for women and their children.
The program, according to its executive director, also focuses on the independence gained from having a home and employment.
“Amos House works with homeless women and children, providing them shelter and the tools they need to get back on their feet and find employment,” Lisa Casagrande Koeppel said this week. “They can become independent and move into their own housing, and never be homeless again,” she added.
Rebecca Cicarelli of Sandy Hook is vice president and the press liaison on the Amos House board of directors. Mary Lombardo, also of Sandy Hook, is on the board.
According to the program’s website, five area churches in 1986 recognized “a clear need” in the greater Danbury area “for a program and place for homeless women and their children to transition to permanent housing.”
Those founding members — which included Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown — “envisioned, designed, and structured their response, the centerpiece of which is Amos House’s living facility, which opened its doors in 1989.”
Cicarelli, who has been involved with the organization since early 2019, said those churches identified a need to help those experiencing homelessness in the Danbury area. While the program initially helped men and women, “over time we have discovered that there are more resources for men, far more than for women — especially for women with children, so our mission has evolved and shaped with that community in mind,” Cicarelli said.
Casagrande Koeppel said the program’s name is rooted in the Bible.
While the name Amos itself has been said to mean “loading” or “weighty” (biblical), or “strong,” “carried,” and “brave” (Hebrew), Amos was one of the 12 minor prophets of the Old Testament. The central idea of the book of Amos is that God puts all of his people on the same level. Amos emphasized the importance of social justice.
Cicarelli points out that there is a similarly named, but completely unaffiliated, effort also called Amos House based in Rhode Island.
To enter the Amos House program, participants must be referred from one of several organizations including the Connecticut State Department of Health, the Department of Children and Family Services, and homeless, emergency, and domestic violence shelters.
Applicants must complete a “rigorous” application process, also according to the website, which includes a commitment to be substance free and willing to help themselves with professional guidance, including career training.
Amos House is affiliated with The Bridge to Independence & Career Opportunities (TBICO). A fellow nonprofit also based in Danbury, TBICO is dedicated to helping individuals and families achieve sustainable self-sufficiency through employment, financial literacy, and stable housing.
That partnership, said Cicarelli, “is so critical.
“It allows us to take that career training to a whole other level,” she added.
The house in eastern Danbury helps women and children from the city and well beyond. Casagrande Koeppel said this week that Newtown residents have “definitely” moved through the program.
She has also fielded calls from outside the greater Danbury area.
“Last week I had calls from Norwalk and Stamford,” she said. “There’s not a lot of places for moms and kids.”
Children are not allowed in most shelters. For that reason, Amos House refocused its mission again in recent years, to offer its space for that group.
“Single women have places to go,” the executive director said. Amos House is now for those women who have lost their homes, and have children to take care of in addition to themselves.
Calls for help have come from across the state, and even beyond state lines, according to Casagrande Koeppel.
While Amos House offers a haven for its program participants, that roof is temporary. The program equips women with life skills, job skills, counseling, and support, all within a safe environment.
All three women interviewed for this story emphasized the resistance to calling Amos House a shelter.
“We are opening our arms to women who are coming from challenging circumstances,” Cicarelli said.
Lombardo says she and others use the term “transitional housing,” but it goes beyond housing.
“We are kind of the all-encompassing program: there’s housing, and there’s education, and there’s a camaraderie between the residents here,” she said. “There are children here, so there’s a social aspect to it.
“It’s not living in a segregated apartment where they’re having no social interaction,” she continued. “It’s also not this one large room, with many people and not having that home environment.”
Women moving into Amos House must demonstrate the ability to live in a communal setting, Cicarelli pointed out.
“They also have to abstain from all alcohol and substance abuse. It’s a very strict environment,” she said.
Homelessness often follows abusive relationships, so many women who enter the program are also battling PTSD.
“There are a lot of resources that we need to make sure we can give them access to,” Cicarelli added.
Residents are expected to transition to independent living within two years of arriving at Amos House. Many do so sooner than that, “setting a positive example for their children and helping to break the cycle of homelessness,” according to its website.
Amos House has helped more than 200 families transition to self-sufficiency and permanent housing since its founding. Its success rate in recent years, according to Casagrande Koeppel, is just shy of 90 percent.
“I took over in 2017, and our success rate since that time has been 88 percent,” she said November 23.
During fiscal year 2019-20 alone, 21 people — 11 women and ten children — moved through the program. Currently there are ten people — five women and five children — occupying Amos House.
The house has 14 bedrooms, and can hold up to 20 people “when we’re adequately staffed and have everything we need,” Casagrande Koeppel said.
Budget constraints, in addition to the pandemic, have limited the current number of program participants.
“It’s hard to take people in right now,” Casagrande Koeppel said. “We have one little girl with a compromised immune system, so it’s been tough to get people in and interview them.
“I don’t have staff, either, so to have too many people in the house is tough, too,” she further noted.
Casagrande Koeppel and her board are “applying all over the place,” she said, for funding and grants, “but until we get some major funding, we’re limited on the number of people we can have.
“It’s sad, too, because I know there are people out there who need a place. We’re just not able to pull them in here right now.”
The eight-member board of directors is fully volunteer. Made up of individuals from surrounding communities, the board is charged with program and oversight including fundraising.
Members include Danbury resident Benjamin Chianese, president (and former treasurer); Neil Brisson, treasurer, who also represents the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield; Secretary Dan Cox, representing St James Episcopal Church in Danbury, one of the program’s founding covenant churches; Randy Glendinning, representing the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield; and Bruce Simon of Ridgefield and Sue Westerberg of Bethel. Simon and Westerberg are the two most recent additions to the board. Members serve two-year terms.
Cicarelli said the board is composed of people with varying strengths.
“What they’ve tried to do is build a board that is very balanced in experience — not just balance in volunteers but also in the workplace,” she said.
“We have people who are experienced in finance and accounting, others coming from the place of working with a nonprofit,” she added.
The board began to purposely expand last year, she said. “It’s a really good mix, and I’m really excited to see us expanding.”
For Mary Lombardo, it was the idea of getting women and children out of the chaos that can accompany homelessness and giving them tools to become self-sustaining individuals that resonated with her. Being a single mother in the workforce herself, she knows how difficult it can be to keep children motivated and moving forward.
“Education is very important to me and my children, and I just felt that something like this could give them the bridge of getting out of what feels like a helpless situation,” Lombardo said this week.
“There is hope, and there are programs out there to help facilitate them coming out of” homelessness, she added.
Lombardo’s children, she said, were involved in religious education and Scouting. She is proud that her sons are Eagle Scouts, and recognizes that the success of her children was the work of herself as well as others.
“They were guided, they were given attention by adults, and given ways to go,” Lombardo said this week. “I just wanted to continue that.”
Cicarelli was the one who introduced Lombardo to Amos House.
“When Rebecca brought it up one time I thought, ‘This is fabulous,’” Lombardo said.
“I was fortunate that I have a great job, and I have an education, but if it wasn’t for the education, and the guidance I was given as a professional, things could have been different,” she added. “Having those mentors around me has helped, and I want to give that back.”
Four years ago, the Connecticut Department of Housing stopped funding programs like Amos House.
That, said Cicarelli, was “the biggest bump in the road.”
When that government-based funding disappeared, she said, “we ended up losing our executive director, and the house became fully reliant on volunteer staff.”
As of July 1, 2017, Casagrande Koeppel holds the sole paid position for Amos House. All other work is done on a volunteer basis.
While Amos House residents are required to pay program fees, those payments do not cover all needs. Operating costs are kept to a minimum, but fundraising continues to be a challenge.
The organization’s annual fundraiser, a breakfast event, was postponed in April amid escalating COVID-19 concerns. Board members had hoped to present the much-needed event in the fall, but with state regulations still limiting indoor gatherings to 25 people, Amos House was forced to cancel its 2020 fundraiser entirely.
It has been a challenging year. Casagrande Koeppel said Amos House is “holding our own,” but many grants and other funding are on hold or completely gone.
“The places that offer grant monies are closed, and not able to turn the money around,” she said. “A lot of those things have gone away.”
Conversely, some funds do continue to find their way to Amos House.
“A lot of people have come through,” she added. “We’re networking, finding new avenues, and people who want to support us. We’re doing okay, which is amazing.”
Donations have been received this year from the Ridgefield Thrift Shop, which presented a grant to the program. In September, Danbury Elks Lodge 120 selected Amos House for a grant to help the homeless population in the greater Danbury area.
Amos House is also part of the Amazon Smile initiative. Shoppers at Amazon can select Amos House to receive a donation with each purchase.
In addition to sponsors and donors, Amos House continues to seek new board members and volunteers.
Right now, monetary donations are most helpful.
“If not for COVID, we would love volunteers at the house, but we’re kind of stuck with that right now,” Casagrande Koeppel said. “Once COVID goes away, I’d love to have people come and help with cooking or cleaning, or even childcare.
“For now, monetary donations would be wonderful,” she said.
To learn more, and to be alerted when volunteer opportunities are again available, visit amoshouse.org.