Shelter, landlords work together to help homeless

VERGENNES — It was only a couple of months ago that Dave Huntley was jobless, homeless and living out of his car.

“I’d been working on a farm in Barton,” Huntley said during a recent interview at the John W. Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes, where he eventually landed. “There weren’t too many farm jobs out there.”

But thanks to the efforts of the shelter, other area nonprofits and a Vergennes landlord, Huntley is a now a rent-paying tenant at a local residence.

It is a success story that shelter Executive Director Elizabeth Ready hopes to keep replicating in 2013. To that end, the shelter has set goals with the Addison County Community Trust (ACCT) and the Counseling Service of Addison County to transition a combined total of almost 30 people from homelessness to permanent housing during the coming year. If successful, the program is in turn expected to free up more beds in the shelter, which includes 25 beds that are currently full.

The ACCT currently owns and manages 240 affordable housing units in Addison County. The organization has signed a memo of understanding with the shelter to make a dozen of those units available to homeless people looking to establish themselves in permanent housing. And the ACCT has also pledged in the memo to set aside 10 percent of any net, new units created in the future.

“One of the things housing developers around the state have been trying to do is support the local homeless shelters so that when people get stabilized in the shelter, there is a place for them to go,” said ACCT Executive Director Terry McKnight.

And the new tenants, like Huntley, get more than a place to stay. Shelter counselors and other human services providers work with them to impart household budget skills and make sure they have other supports in place to ensure they are reliable rent payers.

“This is something that’s really been supported by the (Vermont) Housing Finance Agency and by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board,” McKnight said.

That support has only grown in recent years with the closing of the Vermont State Hospital and the death of a homeless Middlebury native in Burlington last winter. Homelessness touches all demographics, noted Ready, who said the shelter’s current occupants range in age from a few days old to 74 years old.

“We have vulnerable people here,” Ready said.

Shelter officials try to take in all comers, but there are some people whom the facility can’t accept for reasons that include drug addiction.

“That’s when people start to slip through the cracks,” Ready lamented. “So we have been taking a close look at how we can forge some partnerships to make sure nobody is left outside.”

So the shelter successfully negotiated the partnerships with ACCT and the Counseling Service, through Pathways Vermont. The CSAC partnership calls on the shelter to help find housing for individuals who may be struggling with mental illness. At this point, shelter officials hope to take on around 15 such clients in 2013, finding them apartments and the necessary wrap-around services to function well in their own apartment.

“The philosophy is, ‘Everybody deserves housing, nobody deserves to be outside, and housing shouldn’t necessarily be conditioned to certain behaviors or getting into treatment or jumping through certain hoops,’” Ready said.

Finding affordable apartments for people with limited means is tough under any circumstances, let alone for a population that is often unemployed and without a good credit history. That’s how the ACCT and a group of private county landlords like Dave Venman and Jud Swenor of Vergennes have been trying to help out. Swenor is renting out three rooms at his West Street property and one of them is being occupied by Huntley.

Swenor explained he had a lot of spare room at his house and was happy to work with the shelter in taking in some tenants.

“I was there once; I lived in a tent one summer,” Swenor said of his ability to relate to people who are at a low point in their lives. “If I have issues with anyone, I call (the shelter) and we figure it out.”

He has provided some mentorship as well as a roof for his new tenants.

“I get along good with Jud; I couldn’t ask for a better landlord,” Huntley said.

Ready explained the shelter has several counselors and college interns available to help the transitioning homeless clients with tasks ranging from shopping to applying for veterans’ benefits. The shelter in some cases also helps its clients raise the often obligatory first and last month’s rent due at the signing of a lease. Ready and her staff raise money and apply for grants for rental assistance.

Now that the program is in place, all that is missing are the housing vacancies.

“We have a 240-unit portfolio that is completely full,” McKnight said. “Our commitment to this program is that as others leave, we can put them in, but until they leave, we are banging up against it and (the shelter) still has a problem.”

Ready has a family of six waiting to snap up a three-bedroom apartment as soon as one become available.

Shelter officials are reminding people that the Vermont Agency of Human Services provides a cold weather exemption and will house homeless people in a motel if the temperature or wind chill falls below 20 degrees Fahrenheit; or the temperature falls below 32 F with snow or freezing rain.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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