Graham Shelter eyes renovation

VERGENNES — Officials of the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter are working toward a major renovation of the shelter’s original building in Vergennes, which sits prominently at the intersection of Main Street and Monkton Road.
On June 8, the Vergennes City Council agreed to support the homeless shelter board’s application for a $300,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) that could pay for most, but far from all, of a project that would follow sensitive historic preservation guidelines.
Shelter director Elizabeth Ready said a preliminary study has been done, but a full evaluation set for this summer should pin down a final number. She would not be surprised if the total cost was in the neighborhood of the $500,000 it took to renovate Barre’s Samaritan House, another homeless shelter.
“I do want to stress we are going to have to raise money,” Ready said. “Even the Community Development people are going to want to see we are working hard in the community.”
Vergennes Mayor Michael Daniels said aldermen quickly agreed to sign off on the CDBG grant, something the council had to do to allow the Graham Shelter board to proceed with the application.
“It’s a way to get funding for something that needs to be done,” Daniels said. “Here’s a great opportunity for them to get the funding … It’s the right support to offer, and it’s something that needs to happen.”
That support — which will not cost the city any money — will not necessarily translate into approval when the Vermont Community Development Program board sits down late this fall to review block grant applications, Ready said, although she is optimistic given the high use of the shelter and its high visibility.
“I want to stress these are competitive grants,” she said.
The building in question is one of three the Graham Shelter now operates; it is the original building and the largest, with six bedrooms, one of them handicap-accessible. The 30-year-old organization has in recent years added buildings on East Street in Vergennes and on Mountain Street in Bristol.
Ready said the organization has also worked hard to take care of its original Vergennes building, but wear and tear is inevitable.
“We’ve been open 24/7 for 30 years … The shelter is always full,” Ready said. “We are packed full with people, and we’ve gotten an outreach person to try to place people in private apartments … Basically, we just need a major facelift.”
The preliminary report completed by Tom Keefe of Keefe and Wesner Architects was complimentary of the Graham Shelter’s maintenance efforts, but noted that work was needed on the slate roof, brick chimney, some exterior paint and in some windows.
And the biggest exterior issue Keefe identified may have been that the original wood siding was covered by aluminum siding, and wood siding would be necessary for historic preservation purposes.
“It’s the gateway to Vergennes,” Ready said. “We’d like to redo the siding.”
Keefe also noted “apparent inefficiencies” in the interior layout; pointed to storage as “a critical need;” and called for better energy efficiency, insulation and “improved mechanical and electrical system components.”
Ready said one major interior issue she has seen in her tenure is the lack of a living space other than a shared kitchen for families to gather to relax or do job or home searches or school work.
“We really don’t have much living space for residents,” she said. “It’s very tough on our families.”
Lack of insulation has also been an issue, Ready said.
“There are certain rooms we can’t put families with babies in in the winter,” Ready said.
Ready hopes the study this summer will pin down estimates. If the block grant comes through this fall and winter and community fund-raising goes well, she foresees work next summer between school sessions, when families’ lives would have the least disruption.
“I can’t tell you exactly how long it will be, but we will try to minimize that,” she said. “It will be in the summer, and it will be as short a time as possible, and I’m not sure if we will have to close completely or not. Our goal is that we will be all ready and renovated for the beginning of school.”
When the Graham Shelter got its Bristol home up and running, the project benefited from tremendous community activism, Ready said. She hopes that effort can be duplicated next summer if all goes according to plan.
“I’m hoping the community will get involved … On Mountain Street we had a tremendous number of volunteers,” Ready said. “There will be opportunities for people to pitch in with materials and time.”
Reporter Andy Kirkaldy is at [email protected].

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