There is a woman on the staff at the Beth-El Center who was once homeless. She lived in the Beth-El homeless shelter.

“She faced many challenges but has since gotten her bachelor’s degree, and is two semesters away from her master’s degree,” said Toni Dolan, the center’s executive director.

And that, Dolan said, is one of the things she is most proud of as she prepares to retire after 11 years at the helm of this Milford-based homeless shelter and soup kitchen.

“I am most proud of her success, and the success of the many clients who I have had the privilege of serving,” Dolan said.

She is also proud that there is now a no-freeze shelter: On frigid nights, the soup kitchen is filled with cots and the homeless are brought in from the cold.

There are also more programs held inside the center: a nutritionist from ShopRite comes in to talk about cooking on a budget, and there are visits by the Connecticut Food Bank, literacy tutors, visiting nurses, and more.

But, Dolan added, much work still needs to be done in terms of homelessness.

“Overall, until we have adequate mental health services and housing that is truly affordable, we’re not going to end this,” said Dolan, who plans to retire in June. “We’ve made great progress in this goal to end homelessness, but you’re going to have issues.”

People find their way into the homeless shelter through two key paths. There are the chronic homeless, who have substance abuse problems or mental illness, and there are those who face an unexpected life change, like divorce, separation, domestic violence, loss of a spouse, or loss of a job.

Those who wind up here following a life change often have more resources to help them get back on track, more family support.

“But the more chronic ones, they have lived unsheltered for a long time,” Dolan said.

It’s been historically harder to connect the chronic homeless to resources, even though there has recently been an uptick in services because of state efforts to really combat homelessness.

“But even some of those have dried up because of the state budget,” Dolan said.

“The state budget crisis has definitely been an issue this year,” she said. “One minute you have a pile of money to use and the next minute it’s gone.”
Yes, homelessness here
Milford is in the midst of an economic renaissance, with an explosion of new businesses moving into town. The city’s economic development office reports that business development significantly outpaces that in all other surrounding Connecticut towns, and Milford’s commercial spaces have an impressive 96% occupancy rate.

But that doesn’t mean Milford does not have its homeless problems.

Two homeless men died within six months of each other in 2016, and the people at the shelter who knew them felt the pain of that loss.

The two men were among a group that social workers here call Milford’s “unsheltered homeless,” those who “choose” for a variety of reasons to live outside in tents or in their cars rather than take advantage of the area shelters.

Both men died because of lifestyle-related health issues.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the job has been trying to reach the unsheltered homeless, Dolan said. There are about 20 unsheltered homeless people living in Milford, some in tents set up in wooded areas.

The nights have been cold in recent weeks, and while some of the unsheltered will come to the city’s “no freeze shelter,” others stay outside. During a recent count of homeless people in Milford, Dolan said, there was one person living in a tent in the woods who had a generator for heat.

“They pool what little they have,” Dolan said. “Most of them living outside, they have issues of some kind, mental illness or addiction.”

There is a man who eats at the soup kitchen every day, but he lives outside in the woods here in town. He is polite and respectful. He eats and leaves, Dolan said, adding that he just wants to be left alone. He may have post-traumatic stress disorder; she isn’t sure.

“These are our challenges,” Dolan said. “Several have been out there for years.”

There is no average age for these 20 or so unsheltered homeless, and that number is likely  higher than 20. There is a push by the state now to address homelessness among youth, and Dolan said she is sure there are young people among Milford’s homeless — between 18 and 25 years old.

“There is a growing population of young people that are out there,” she said. “In the past, the state focused on singles and veterans; this year and going forward, it is youth and families.”

Again, Dolan said, there is a lot of work left to do.
Retiring, a tough decision
It was a hard decision for Dolan to retire.

She said it took a long time to make the decision because she is so vested in her mission.

“But there were two things I was committed to — turning over a healthy organization, and being committed to the transition,” Dolan said.

The center has faced challenges over the years, but she said today it is a healthy organization, strong and well-respected.

While she is not the one who will pick the next director — that will be up to the board — she agreed to share some of her thoughts about the person she thinks should take over.

It has to be someone who is passionate about fighting homelessness.

It should be someone who is a consensus builder.

It should be someone who can work well with the community.

“It’s very important here to build and maintain relationships in the community,” she said. “It’s a small city.”

The center relies heavily on volunteers because the staff is small: seven full-time, and then the night staff, for a total of 19 staff members.

There is only one staff member to run the soup kitchen, and volunteers pick up the slack there.

“We couldn’t do it without volunteers,” Dolan said.

Her retirement plans include possibly auditing some college classes, traveling a little, getting more active in her church, exercising, and attending even more of the sporting events her seven grandchildren are involved in.

“But obviously, I’m going to leave a piece of myself here,” she said.

Beth-El Center board member Albert May had high praise for Dolan.

"From 2001 to 2015, I worked as the director of development for a New Haven-based organization whose focus was, like Beth-El’s, reducing homelessness and hunger,” May said. “During that time, I became familiar with similar programs across in the state. Given that background, I believe Toni is one of the most talented and capable administrators I have ever met in this field.  

“Beth-El is an extremely well-managed organization, one of the best in the state, and the credit for that goes to Toni,” May added. “She combines vision and  compassion with management skills that are second to none and from which Beth-El has benefited greatly during the years she has been executive director.”

Max Case, another board member, said everyone who has worked under Dolan’s leadership is a better person for the experience.

“Toni is a passionate, tireless advocate for the homeless that attempt to eke out an existence on the fringes of our community,” Case said. “Through her diligent efforts she solidified Beth-El’s standing in Milford. Today, Beth-El stands on solid financial ground and has a unique ability to provide safe surroundings for those in need, while at the same time helping to transition individuals and families to more permanent residences.”