Fairfield’s Operation Hope gets $1.5M to find a home of its own

Photo of Josh LaBella

FAIRFIELD — The State Bond Commission’s recent approval of $1.5 million for Operation Hope will make a big difference as the nonprofit looks to find a new location, officials said.

Carla Miklos, Operation Hope’s executive director, said she was surprised and happy the state approved the funding, as the organization begins looking for a home to house all its services in one place. She said they’re looking for a building with approximately 12,000 square feet they can renovate to fit their needs.

Operation Hope tackles homelessness and food insecurity. It provides a number of services in Fairfield, including offering outreach, intake and crisis resolution to more than 1,200 people annually. It also serves more than 20,000 meals a year from its community kitchen and provides more than 170,000 meals to more than 1,100 households annually via its food bank. It also operates 70 units of affordable housing in Fairfield and Bridgeport and helps house an additional 300 people a year.

“In the past 35 years, we went from a strange idea to an integral part of the community,” Miklos said. “It feels good to know that people value the work we do.”

Miklos said she appreciates the work the legislators did to come together to push for the state funding.

State Sen. Tony Hwang (R-28) said that, even with the incredible work Operation Hope does, the organization has never had a home of its own. He said Fairfield’s state delegation unilaterally supported and pushed for the nonprofit getting the state funding.

“It truly was a bipartisan effort. We were unified,” he said. “This was important for them to have the seed money to make a purchase of a location. It is also going to need community contributions and support. This is just the start, but it’s a big start.”

Miklos said the organization has been using the old police station on Nichols Street since the new station was being built next door. Operation Hope also rents a building from the First Congregational Church on the Old Post Road.

“Jacky Durrell was the first selectwoman at that time and she thought that it was important that we start to do something about hunger and homelessness in town,” she said. “We were very fortunate that she offered us that location. We’ve been leasing it for a nominal fee for all these years.”

But the town has indicated it wants that original Nichols Street building back, Miklos said, noting that’s where Operation Hope’s homeless resource center and community kitchen operate. She said she feels the nonprofit is running on borrowed time.

“We’re very lucky that they’ve allowed us to overstay our welcome a little bit, but we’re going to need to get out of there,” she said.

Additionally, the nonprofit has outgrown the Old Post Road building, Miklos said, and so it is at a place where neither building Operation Hope has is going to be a long-term solution.

Miklos said she and the board of directors have been keeping their eyes open as they look for properties that might fit the bill for Operation Hope to purchase and renovate.

“One of our challenges is that we definitely need to stay in Fairfield, and we need to serve this community,” she said. “We have a commitment to do that. But unlike our neighbors in Norwalk or Bridgeport, who might be given an abandoned building or an eyesore or something nobody really wants in those communities.... we’re in a different situation.”

Miklos noted property in Fairfield is expensive, which adds to the challenge of finding a space.

“It’ll be a little more challenging for sure, but we’re also not looking for a hellacious space,” she said. “We’re looking for something appropriate for the work we do.”

Miklos said that means something accessible — such as on the bus line or near the train station — as well as one with the space and structure to operate a community kitchen and a food pantry. She said it also needs to fit their 30 staff members, as well as the their clients — all while being “safe, clean and affordable.”

“When you look at all the things we do... we’re going to need about 10,000 to 12,000 square feet,” she said. “We are just hopeful that we can find something that is able to house these different programs effectively. There’s also something to be said for everything under one roof as far as a common culture and common set of values.”

Miklos said the nonprofit is likely going to take out a loan for about $1 million and is hoping to raise an additional million to make up the difference as it builds out the plan to move.

“We’re not sure if that’s doable, but we think that’s a good goal,” she said. “We’re not looking to spend more than we need to, but we’re just being realistic about securing a property and renovating it.”

As it stands, Miklos said, Operation Hope’s leaders are hoping this can all be done within two years. She said it will take a lot of planning and lot of management.

“If we’re going to be ready for the next 35 years, this is a move we have to make,” she said. “I feel responsible for shepherding it through.”

This story has been updated with the corrected amount approved by the State Bond Commission.

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com