Shelter expands focus on transitional housing

BRISTOL — The John Graham Emergency Shelter on Monday closed a deal for a $198,000 home in Bristol, which the Vergennes-based homeless shelter intends to covert into three units of transitional housing.
The deal comes at a time of rising demand for the homeless shelter’s services. It marks a ratcheting up of the organization’s efforts to use transitional housing to give families and individuals a place to get back on their feet while they hunt for a permanent residence that is away from the hubbub of the shelter but under the umbrella of a support system.
The Bristol property, at 24 Mountain St., will be the second transitional housing unit the shelter owns, and the first outside Vergennes.
Shelter Executive Director Elizabeth Ready estimated the building needs about $100,000 in work, primarily in lead abatement and energy efficiency upgrades, but she hopes to have at least one or two of the three apartments occupied in the next few months.
The purchase was made using private funds the shelter raised from local donors, but Ready hopes the cost will be offset by a possible grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, a subsidized mortgage from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston through the National Bank of Middlebury, and a $30,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development secured by Vermont’s Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The property is close to Bristol Elementary School and a stone’s throw from the Shaw’s grocery store and a bus stop, which Ready said will help families who don’t own a vehicle.
The shelter is also hopeful that having a transitional housing property in Bristol will be good news for homeless families and individuals in the Five Towns area. Ready said that numbers are always in flux, but over the last few months roughly half of the people the shelter has worked with have come from that part of the county.
Clara Carroll, a case manager at the shelter, said homelessness in more remote regions of the county is made more devastating because residents in those areas — many of whom do not have cars — don’t have easy access to services or public assistance. In light of that, the shelter hopes to use the Bristol housing unit as an auxiliary food shelf. (Bristol’s current lone food shelf is only open once a month.)
Carroll and Ready acknowledged that, even with the new building, the John Graham Emergency Shelter doesn’t have enough beds to help every resident in the county struggling with homelessness.
So Carroll is heading up a new initiative at the shelter. She’s going directly to private and public landlords to negotiate leases for residents at the shelter. Traditional transitional housing options, through the shelter, give tenants a chance to earn a good recommendation and boost their chances for renting on the open market. Without that step it’s often very difficult for residents at the shelter — many of whom have bad credit and poor references — to find a landlord who will rent to them.
But under this new initiative — which the shelter ramped up this summer — a case manager pledges to continue working with a family after they’ve made the move into privately owned housing. Landlords are reassured that some of the shelter’s services will still be available to their new tenants. The shelter helps with down payment assistance, and in some cases can arrange to have rent money “vendored,” or sent directly to a landlord from a paycheck, “Reach Up” assistance or a Section 8 voucher without passing through the tenant’s hands.
Carroll said the idea is to blend transitional housing — that is, independent housing that comes with the added support of the shelter’s services — with a traditional lease between a landlord and tenant.
The numbers are promising: The shelter has seen more demand for its services this year than ever before. In the past two months alone, the shelter’s case managers have worked with 79 homeless people in 31 households. Of these, 65 people in 23 households got stable housing and in most cases will continue to receive support from one of four shelter case managers. The remaining households received food, shelter, and case management services, and the shelter’s staff is hopeful that some will be placed in the Mountain Street units in Bristol. In a perfect world, Ready said, the shelter would be able to place some of its first families in the house by the time the holidays roll around.
So far, the feedback from tenants and landlords has been encouraging, too. Most landlords are nervous about taking a tenant coming from a homeless shelter, Carroll said, but many people are much more comfortable with the idea if there’s a third party involved.
“There’s a lot of compassion,” Carroll said. “It’s a new way of participating in our community.”
Shelter resident finds help in transitional housing
VERGENNES — Moving day made for the usual mix of signing leases and running errands for Nick, 28, the father of two young sons who earlier this week set about unpacking his belongings in a two-bedroom apartment in Middlebury.
But the day wasn’t your typical case of apartment hopping. For Nick, the move signaled the end of his family’s more than nine months in one of the John Graham Emergency Shelter’s transitional housing units on East Street in Vergennes, and the transition from homelessness to new renter.
On Monday, Nick, shelter Executive Director Elizabeth Ready, and case manager Clara Carroll grabbed seats in Ready’s compact office, which doubles as the shelter’s food shelf. Just days after Thanksgiving, the shelves were mostly empty. Carroll leafed through her notebook, and the three worked down Nick’s “to do” list: the lease, the deposit, first month’s rent.
Nick and his two sons, who were both in diapers at the time, landed at the shelter last winter. Now, Nick is relieved to be making the jump to Middlebury. In the new apartment he can walk his sons to daycare, and he is optimistic about his job prospects in the area. (He works full-time as a volunteer at Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, but is hunting for paid work.)
Still, for all his enthusiasm about the move, Nick spoke highly about his months in the East Street transitional unit. He’d been “a little bit of everywheres” before he ended up at the shelter, but it didn’t take long for Nick — and Ready — to realize that the shelter spelled chaos for two toddlers. There were the building’s rickety stairs to navigate, and Nick hated waking up the shelter’s other residents when he got up in the middle of the night to get one of his sons a glass of milk.
“It’s tough for parents with really tiny children,” Ready said. “It was a top priority for us to move Nick (to East Street).”
So the shelter acted fast. Soon, Nick and his sons were living in a one-bedroom apartment with their own kitchen, and Nick soon became president of the resident’s association that governs the housing units. His children had bounced around a lot before he won custody of the two boys, so Nick was pleased to give them a routine and some stability in an apartment apart from the chaos of the shelter.
“It made it more homey,” Nick said. “It definitely made a big difference.”
Having a place to call home for a few months also gave Nick the chance to hunt for an apartment of his own. He worked with the shelter’s case managers to get access to a Section 8 rental voucher and poured over classified ads in search of an affordable option.
Nick said he’s the kind of person who never really asked for help — but coming to the shelter changed that.
“I learned a lot living here,” Nick said. “Advocating for myself was a big thing. Pride can get right in the way.
“Those little boys mean everything to me,” he said. “I would go through anything for them.”

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