Story By John Murray

The past thirty months have been a continuous roller coaster for the CHD Hospitality Center in Waterbury that serves the city’s struggling homeless population.

On February 21, 2020, their building at 693 East Main Street was destroyed by fire. The blaze was caused by faulty wiring and the structure was demolished.

A fire in February 2020 devastated the homeless hospitality center in Waterbury.

Thirty months later there is an effort to rebuild on the old site at 693 East Main Street.

A temporary space was offered to CHD by Ralph Monti at 690 East Main Street.

“I was standing in the middle of the street watching the fire with Ralph Monti,” Mayor O’Leary told the Observer in 2020. “Ralph owned a building directly across the street and said we could set up a new center for the homeless there.”

And by March 2, 2020, the new center was up and running at 690 East Main Street. Then the COVID pandemic hit and the new hospitality center was forced to close due to a lack of personal protection equipment, and social distancing issues.

“We tried limiting the number of people inside the center and gave everyone one hour,” CHD program director Belinda Arce-Lopez said in April 2020, “but when the hour was up, they didn’t want to leave. It was a struggle, so we closed.”

The need for a place to rest, do laundry, take a shower or use a computer is met by the CDC Hospitality Center at 690 East Main Street in Waterbury.

When O’Leary learned that the new center had closed, he ordered a massive, heated tent erected behind the center to house the homeless population as they waited to enter the center, which re-opened April 13th, 2020, the day after Easter.

Matt O’Toole, a homeless man interviewed Easter morning was grateful when he learned the hospitality center would be opened the next day. “We have no place to go,” O’Toole said. “Yesterday it was cold and windy (40 mph) and I laid down in Library Park and tried to survive until the shelter opened back up.”

The following day, Monday, April 14th, the sky cracked open and for ten hours the wind and rain hammered down on Waterbury. But on that day, Matt O’Toole and dozens of homeless people from the shelter and the woods and from beneath the underpasses had a warm place to go. Dots had been connected, and the homeless hospitality center was back open and tending to the needs of the city’s most vulnerable.

Belinda Arce-Lopez is”the rock” that holds the hospitality center together.

But through all the challenges the staff at the Hospitality Center stood strong, and with help from the City of Waterbury and a staggering amount of donations from the public (a year’s worth of clothes were donated in days after the fire), the center is flourishing once again.

70 clients a day are served at the hospitality center where they are met with respect and compassion by staff and volunteers.

And on August 26th, 2022, the Hospitality Center threw itself a 10th Anniversary party and invited local dignitaries, including Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, Waterbury Police Chief Fred Spagnolo, State Representative Geraldo Reyes Jr., Kenny Curran from Senator Chris Murphy’s Office, and Jim Goodwin, the President and CEO of the Center for Human Development (CHD) that is the umbrella over the hospitably center.

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary addressed a group off 15-20 homeless, the CDC staff at the hospitality center, and a few dignitaries and press.

CHD has 26 locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut, including Waterbury, Torrington, New Milford, Danbury and Hartford. According to its website, CHD provides a broad range of quality, community-oriented human services dedicated to enhancing, and protecting the dignity and welfare of people in need.

Barber Luis Rodriguez of Torrington comes every Tuesday to give free haircuts. He is pictured here “taking it down a little bit” for Wayne Swanson of Waterbury. Luis is also pictured in the cover image shaving Richard Radov.

Speaking at the celebration last Friday in Waterbury CEO Jim Goodwin said, “This has not been an easy two and half years. With resilience, and a lot of help and support from the community, we’ve pushed forward.”

Goodwin said Waterbury’s commitment to the hospitality center and making it part of its 10-year-plan to address homelessness is unique and has drawn interest from other communities.

“Something different has happened here,” Goodwin said. “It’s not going to change the world into a happy place, but it sure does help.”

Goodwin thanked the staff and thanked Waterbury for its optimism.

Mayor O’Leary thanked Ralph Monti whose quick thinking enabled the center to reopen quickly after the fire. “Ralph Monti is a hero to the underserved and he has made a huge difference.”

Ralph Monti’s quick compassion allowed the Hospitality Center to open on the front edge of the COVID pandemic in his building on East Main Street.

All the speakers during the celebration acknowledged the tireless work that director Belinda Arce-Lopez has performed, and O’Leary called her a rock.

“Belinda has a deep compassion for those in need,” O’Leary said. “She was down at the fire within minutes making sure that people were taken care of and had shelter. We are grateful about your commitment and look forward to rebuilding the building across the street. We should see some action very soon.”

Police Chief Spagnolo said Belinda Arce-Lopez works in concert with the police during extreme weather events when the homeless need shelter. “The first call I get from the mayor is to get in touch with Belinda and get some community cops down to the hospitality center to help,” Spagnolo said.

Brandon Rosa is a client of the hospitality center and gave shoutouts to staff and regulars. Rosa and Brenda Arce-Lopez drew the biggest reaction from the crowd.

“People come in here with nothing and come out of here with something,” Brenda Arce-Lopez said. “You have to want to do better, and CDC wants you to do better.”

Get Involved – If You’d Like To Volunteer at the Hospitality Center

The CHD Hospitality Center is a true haven for the homeless population. Here, homeless persons have the opportunity to take a shower, do laundry, use a computer or telephone, collect mail, take shelter from snow, cold and rain, and enjoy a brief respite from the harshness of living on the street. In addition to meeting these basic needs, the Hospitality Center also provides information about programs designed to move people out of homelessness.

Donate to the Hospitality Center

Support means more than just food, shelter, and other essential human needs for the people who visit the Hospitality Center. It helps give people a chance to get back on their feet.

Waterbury Hospitality Center, 690 East Main Street Waterbury, CT 06702