MIDDLEBURY — The John W. Graham Emergency Shelter is marking its 35th year with a new organizational name and the acquisition of an apartment building in Middlebury offering four affordable apartments for people transitioning from homelessness.
It was in 1980 that the shelter was founded in Vergennes to provide temporary, emergency housing for people with no other place to stay. The organization has since evolved into much more, providing transitional housing, transportation, substance abuse counseling, and help in applying for benefits and finding a job.
It is in recognition of those many functions that the shelter board has renamed the organization “John Graham Housing and Services,” or JGHS.
“Of course the shelter on Main Street in Vergennes is still at the heart of our work,” board Chairwoman Abi Sessions said. “But more than ever, we are helping people access permanent housing and the services they need to take the next steps in their lives, so it seemed like ‘housing’ and ‘services’ should be part of our name.”
Sessions and JGHS Executive Director Elizabeth Ready said the organization will continue to stick to its dual mission of rapidly rehousing families and providing ongoing support to those clients to make sure they are able to maintain a roof over their heads for the long term.
“To accomplish this mission, we have worked to hire and train a team of professional staff to assist both in locating housing and in supporting families to successfully remain housed,” Sessions noted.
And JGHS has a new housing option to offer its clients, thanks to its purchase this past March of a four-unit apartment building at 42 North Pleasant St. in Middlebury. The JGHS acquired the property from Christine Fraioli on March 2 for $250,000, according to Middlebury property transfer records. Ready said her organization was able to make the purchase — and fund more than $141,000 in renovations to the building — through a combination of bank loans, fundraising and assistance from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.
Extensive work on 42 North Pleasant St. has included installation of new heating and hot water systems, lead abatement and addition of substantial insulation to the building’s walls. That work has been completed and tenants have long-since settled in to the four apartments, three of which are two-bedroom units. The fourth is an efficiency apartment.
The acquisition of 42 North Pleasant St. finally gives JGHS a foothold in Addison County’s shire town, Ready noted.
“Our board has long wanted to have a property in the Middlebury area,” Ready said. “It seemed to make good sense.”
John Graham Housing and Services’ housing portfolio now includes three properties in Vergennes (the shelter and two apartment houses), and one apartment house each in Bristol and Middlebury. The nonprofit organization pays full property taxes on all four apartment houses, according to Ready. The shelter is tax-exempt.
“The five locations are all places where people can live and receive services and take the next step in their lives,” Ready said.
Tenants of 42 North Pleasant St. will not face any time limits on residency and will have access to JGHS’s many other services, according to Ready. Fortunately, three of the apartment building’s four units can be easily accessed from the ground level, thus allowing them to be used by people with disabilities. Tenants are likely to be recently homeless and part of the “working poor” demographic, John Graham officials said. They are also likely to be eligible for rental subsidies, according to Ready.
There continues to be an acute demand for affordable housing in Addison County and beyond, Ready noted.
“I could fill another (42 North Pleasant St.) if I had one,” Ready said. “I have three people at the shelter right now who have housing vouchers.”
Almost every one of the shelter’s 25 beds is currently full, according to Ready. Increases in the county’s affordable housing stock helps shelter residents transition to the next step toward permanent housing.
“We have really been able to help a lot of people (obtain) permanent housing,” Ready said, adding that Addison County has one of the lowest rates in the state of homeless people requiring emergency vouchers for motel stays.
“Every person who comes in (to the shelter) has a personal plan, and we help them realize it,” Ready said.
To that end, the shelter staff includes three masters-level clinicians who help clients work through their problems and get on the road to self-sufficiency. Ready on Monday announced the recent hiring of Kate Schirmer-Smith, a licensed mental health counselor, and Elizabeth Guenard, a social worker.
A more robust and specialized staff is needed to deal with what is a more complex pattern of homelessness, according to Sessions.
“The situation for homeless people in Addison County is not what it was 35 years ago when the John Graham Emergency Shelter was established,” she said. “More families with children are homeless. More working people are homeless, unable to bridge the gap between what they earn in entry-level jobs and the high cost of rents in Addison County. More people who find themselves homeless struggle with chronic physical or mental illnesses. And the need for shelter continues to grow year after year.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org