VERGENNES — Despite the ongoing renovation of the John Graham Homeless Shelter’s main building on Monkton Road in Vergennes, shelter officials have continued to fulfill the organization’s mission of finding housing for the homeless — even though demand is higher than usual, said Shelter Executive Director Elizabeth Ready.
Ready said plans had first called for the 10-bedroom Monkton Road building to stay open during the $627,000 project, which is expected to be finished in early September.
Instead, Ready said for safety and quality-of-life reasons, the Graham Shelter rented apartment and office space in a nearby Main Street building owned by the Addison County Community Trust. There, a half-dozen single homeless individuals can be housed.
More importantly, Ready said, Graham Shelter officials have redoubled their efforts in a newer program, with support from a $40,000 Agency of Human Services grant, to help place families in permanent apartments rather than in shelter or motel bedrooms.
“We have scrambled a lot, but we would be anyway,” Ready said. “What we’ve really done is scramble to place people in permanent housing, and that’s really what our work is.”
The 30-year-old Graham Shelter is now helping about 70 people, more than the four dozen Ready said would be more typical of this time of year.
“To house 70 homeless people at any given moment is a lot, and some of them have real challenges,” she said.
Some have been placed in the shelter’s other two homes, on East Street in Vergennes and Mountain Street in Bristol. Others have been helped into subsidized housing projects in county towns, in apartment settings that also offer needed services.
The shelter assigns a case manager to each one and continues to work with them, often in tandem with other social service agencies, such as the Counseling Service of Addison County.
“Every one of then has an individualized case plan developed with a case manager,” Ready said.
But finding homes for families has always posed a challenge, and that’s where the grant and the new program, intended to help up to 100 homeless, comes in.
Ready said the effort is part of a growing national “Housing First” movement, which is based on the belief that people cannot sort out their other problems — including mental health difficulties, substance abuse and joblessness — until they have secure shelter.
That point was central to earning the grant from the Agency of Human Services, she said.
“People need housing before they can work on other issues,” Ready said. “We made the argument that housing has to come first.”
Another selling point in the shelter’s application was economic. Apartments large enough for families of four or five can cost $850 or more per month. Many homeless families can afford about $500, Ready said, and the grant can make up the difference.
With the alternative being up to $75 a night in a motel, Ready said subsidizing an apartment for families is cost-effective for the state — and its taxpayers.
“It’s also saving the state significant dollars,” she said.
The process of helping homeless families, who often understandably have financial and emotional baggage, is at times complex. It can mean, Ready said, training families to be good tenants, both in taking care of their living quarters and making smart choices about visitors, and also in some cases working with them to clean up bad debt.
Shelter workers educate their clients while they are in shelter housing, and then follow up with at least weekly visits when they move into the community.
“It means really sticking with people,” Ready said, adding, “We have a number of families we’ve been working with a long time.”
REMAKING THE SHELTER
Meanwhile, the work to the Monkton Road building is coming along well, she said.
The project includes renovation of its bedrooms and kitchens; creation for the first time of a communal living room; sprinkler installation; major upgrades to its wiring, plumbing and insulation; removal of vinyl siding and repair of its original clapboards; installation of a new heating system and other energy-efficiency equipment; repairs to the foundation, chimneys and slate roofing; and replacement of a porch.
The project is funded by a $327,000 Community Development Block Grant funneled through the city of Vergennes, a $197,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and private donations.
The new living room will create space for residents not only to relax, but for kids to do homework and adults to work on paperwork such as job applications, Ready said, while overall the project will “aid in fuel efficiency, beautify the building’s exterior, and create more space for our residents and staff.”
Meanwhile, Graham Shelter officials have made progress on another goal: filling the renovated shelter with new furniture in September. Ready said Vergennes business Bub’s Barn agreed to sell needed goods at a reduced rate, and the shelter created a registry at the New Haven Road firm.
The Vergennes Congregational Church kicked off the effort by agreeing to fill the living room, but still needed are dining room, bedroom and kitchen pieces.
Ready asked anyone who wanted to make even a modest donation to contact the Graham Shelter at 877-2677 or go to Bub’s Barn.
“Every bit helps toward our aim to provide a space that is safe, comfortable and uplifting, a space that will aid residents tremendously as they attempt to restore independence and rebuild their lives,” she said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]