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City shelter marks 30 years taking people off the streets

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Posted on April 8, 2010 |
By John Flowers



VERGENNES — Becky, 23, thought she was on a path to matrimony and a nurturing household for her two children.

But the longtime Addison County resident’s life took an abrupt turn last month with a sudden breakup that left her homeless. Faced with no other options, Becky sought help at the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes.

“I had nowhere else to go,” Becky said.

It was a different setting than she had imagined. There was camaraderie among residents, a residential feel and an expectation from the staff that the brief stay would lead to something permanent.

And it did.

Barely a week into her stay, Becky was packing up her belongings — which included a Section 8 housing certificate — for an apartment in St. Albans. There, Becky planned to make a new life for herself and her children with the help of a dear friend already established in that community.

She said her brief stay at the shelter will remain an eye opening experience.

“It’s not like an open gymnasium with cots on the floor,” Becky said. “What I would like to see is for people not to look down on homeless shelters.”

Like Becky and many of its other clients, the John Graham Shelter — now marking its 30th year — has been making a transition of its own. When first established in 1980, the shelter served mainly as a temporary landing spot for locals and transients who didn’t have anywhere else to stay. If they showed adequate diligence in trying to land a job and permanent housing, their stays could be extended beyond 21 days. Those who did not put in the effort often found themselves moving on to another shelter, or sofa surfing at a friend or family member’s home.

Times, and strategies, have now changed.

The shelter now has a staff of a half-dozen workers who work with each client to try and get them into a permanent home and a job that will help them stay in that home. The organization has forged a relationship with the University of Vermont Masters of Social Work Program, which has benefited aspiring students and clients alike.

“We are more interested in breaking the cycle of homelessness,” said shelter Executive Director Elizabeth Ready.

The numbers bear that out.

During the past six months, the shelter has provided outreach, case management and comprehensive support — services including mental health counseling, job search aid and relocation help — to more than 130 homeless people, according to Ready. More than 100 of those clients have gone on to stable, more permanent housing, she said.

Ready and shelter Outreach Case Manager Clara Carroll credited a recent infusion of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) money for helping boost outcomes for clients. The shelter hopes to get around $80,000 in ARRA funds, but has thus far received $32,000. That money has been used to help pay security deposits and other related expenses to clinch permanent housing for more than 25 shelter families.

“It’s the money that gets them in the door,” Ready said.

Once in their new homes, the former shelter residents continue to get support from such organizations as the Parent-Child Center of Addison County, Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, WomenSafe and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

That support has definitely been welcomed and needed.

“It felt to me this winter and the past winter that there just weren’t enough beds for the amount of people who needed them,” Carroll said. “It made a lot of sense to invest in the people who were there so we wouldn’t see them again. I think that has been pretty effective.”

Not all of the shelter clients’ stories have happy endings, officials noted.

Approximately 20 clients during the past sic months have had to move on to treatment or other shelters. At least one family suddenly broke a lease when it realized it would not make the ensuing month’s rent.

Carroll, an AmeriCorps volunteer, said she realizes that the shelter will not be able to have an impact on everyone that walks through its doors.

“I think there are a lot of people who have a lot of challenges, and housing can’t be their first priority,” she said, noting clients who have had substance abuse and other chronic problems. “Housing is a few steps beyond where they are at right now.”

But the shelter staff and board of directors have been taking steps to make sure fewer homeless people fall through the cracks. The Vergennes shelter can accommodate up to 25 people. But the organization has established three transitional housing sites, most recently on Mountain Street in Bristol, to meet an ever-growing need. Local clergy and nonprofits have also joined in to establish overflow shelters, including one in the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s Charter House.

While shelter officials are pleased with the new resources they have been able to deploy, they remain concerned with recent trends they have been seeing in their client traffic.

The past six months have seen the shelter serve more families with children, more teens, young adults and — most troubling of all — more women and children victimized by abuse, rape and assault than ever before in the organization’s history, according to Ready.

Shelter officials have learned there is no “typical” client. The facility last year served such people as an injured stonemason, a 73-year-old woman suffering with mental illness, and a professional dancer.

All have been linked by a common thread — a lack of resources.

“As the recession continued, we saw families staying for longer periods, sometimes up to 9 months, because they were unable to find housing, jobs, or both,” Ready said.

A turnaround in the economy will be key if the shelter’s efforts are to have a longstanding impact, according to Ready.

“We are hoping people are going to get jobs,” Ready said. “The next question is, ‘will the economy grow quick enough so that people are able to sustain (the housing gains they have made)?’”

Becky has already been getting some resumes out in St. Albans.

Asked where she would like to be in her life five years from now, she replied, “I’d like to be in a steady job, off of Section 8, not needing help anymore.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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