STRATFORD – Bethlehem House has once again opened its doors and welcomed new families, after recently renovating one of its houses that help homeless families get a new start.
A community ribbon-cutting ceremony was held to mark the new beginning not only for the refurbished house at 389 Jackson Avenue but for the many families who will be given an opportunity to begin a better life.
“As soon as we opened it up, we were able to find families in need,” said Michael Donoghue, director of Catholic Charities of Fairfield County, the organization that manages the houses.
He said the need is real and believes with the moratorium on evictions, set in place during the pandemic that are now ending, the situation could get worse. “We are seeing more people who are housing insecure and for those that suffer from housing insecurity, this huge spike in housing costs is a terrible thing,” Donoghue said.
Bethlehem House is a grassroots transitional and supportive housing program.
In the 1990s, Deacon Paul Kurmay, inspired by the Holy Spirit, decided to study the issue of homelessness in the Stratford area and The Stratford Coalition for the Homeless, a private non-profit group, was born. He said they found that the biggest population of homeless people were families.
“We explored the idea of trying to open a shelter for homeless families and that got nowhere,” he said, partly because of zoning requirements and partly due to the stigma of the homeless and communities objecting to having a shelter in their neighborhood.
At that point the group decided to shift their focus away from homeless shelters to transitional homes for homeless families.
They found a home on Jackson Avenue with four apartments. It was in bad shape and in need of repair. They purchased it with donated funds and grants and decided to refurbish it. This time, no zoning was required and the neighborhood welcomed the idea of having the home in good condition and occupied.
“The houses were a blight on the neighborhood before,” said Deacon Kurmay, adding that it’s remarkable how the community came together and renovated the house with volunteer labor.
“The community wrapped itself around us. Professional qualified people donated services including rewiring the houses. There were thousands of hours of volunteer work and materials,” Deacon Kurmay said.
The name Bethlehem house is an homage to the most famous place that housed the homeless Christ child and family and befittingly, the first house opened its doors in the year 2000 for Christmas, when the first families moved in.
The following year, the house next door, 389 Jackson Avenue, came up for sale and after some renovations, welcomed new families in 2001.
In 2005, Jenny Tetaj and her three children were one of the families to move into Bethlehem House at 379 Jackson Avenue.
“I felt safe when I stepped into that (Bethlehem) house that night,” Tetaj said. “I felt this is where I belong.”
Tetaj, who is originally from Europe and didn’t speak much English at the time, said she left an abusive husband with her three young children in tow. After staying at several shelters over the course of several months she found her way to the Bethlehem House.
“If it wasn’t for Bethlehem House, I would never be where I am today,” said Tetaj, whose children are now adults. “I thank God and all the people who were there to walk me through everything.”
“Bethlehem House helped me achieve the goals in my life,” she said, from getting a job, to driving a car and now owning a home of her own through working with Habitat for Humanity.
“I felt like I’m around people who didn’t let me down,” she said. “I like to be independent and that is exactly what they did for me.”
“I will never forget the journey,” she said and although times are a little tough now, she is currently working as an Uber driver after having lost her job in manufacturing due to the pandemic, her spirit to succeed is still strong.
“I didn’t give up back then and I will not give up now,” she said.
It’s that sentiment of perseverance that also keeps the program moving forward.
In 2007-2008, “the coalition very generously gave the two homes to Catholic Charities to run,” Donoghue said. Somewhere along the way the second home fell into disrepair and was not occupied for several years, until now.
Catholic Charities applied for and received a community development block grant from the city of Stratford.
With rejuvenated interest, the community and neighbors rallied behind efforts to once again, address the needs of the second home.
“We want these formerly homeless families to feel the love from the community,” Donoghue said reflecting on how neighbors helped with small projects around the house including landscaping.
The upkeep on the houses can be challenging and there’s still work to be done.
The newly renovated house will need a new roof soon and donations from community members including the Rotary Club and the Mayor’s Charity Golf Tournament, will go toward that effort, Donoghue said.
Nine families currently live in the two houses. The bottom floor of one of the houses is used for offices, meeting space and social services to assist the families with life skills and finding permanent housing. Families pay rent according to their income level and some may be subsidized through Section 8 or other means. Families live in the house for about one year.
Deacon Kurmay said, Tetaj’s Cinderella story demonstrates why Bethlehem House is key to changing people’s lives for the better.
“We are getting people off the street and into a permanent home of their own,” he said.
“The neighbors are happy and friendly and supportive,” Deacon Kurmay said. “It’s a success story that builds community. It’s beautiful. This is all the Lord’s work.”