When you ask Elizabeth Ready, former director of the John Graham Housing & Services shelter in Vergennes, about the holidays and homelessness, you might think her reaction would reflect an overwhelming sense of so much work to be done and so little time. Not so. Despite the increase in homeless around Vermont, Ready remains optimistic with a “can do” spirit.
Having served as a Vermont state senator from 1989 to 2001 and state auditor between 2001 and 2005, Ready seems pleased to have exited politics and returned to Addison County, where she could do the most good in the community. She now serves as the shelter’s chief financial officer and fundraising director.
“I am a fifth generation Vermonter and my father talked about the work farms here,” Ready said. “Homelessness has been a part of our state, perhaps not always so visible or as much discussed as today.”
Ready said that there are no loafers at the Vergennes shelter. The staff help able adults who need their services to find employment. It may not always be full-time or well paid employment, but it’s a start to get people back on their own feet.
“Nearly all parents (here) are working, but wages are low and the cost of rent is high. The vacancy rate here in Addison County hovers around 1%. So, to afford an average two bedroom apartment … with rent at $1,009, a person would need to earn $19.35 an hour and work 40 hours a week bringing home $40,240. That’s according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition who does an annual study on housing wages.”
John Graham has served homeless families in Addison County for 40 years, but during that time, the gap between rich and poor has widened.
“The richest 5% of Vermont households have average incomes 9.6 times as large as the bottom 20% of households and 3.7 times as large as the middle 20% of households,” according to Ready said. “We are literally pulling apart.”
Ready also said the need for homeless services has changed in recent decades.
“Back in 1980, people who faced homelessness were single people who perhaps had lost a job or had run into some bad luck,” she said. “Today we see many more families with children who are homeless. At John Graham we have five houses, all filled with families with children. The need for services is much greater.”
John Graham helps people move from temporary shelter to stable housing. Individuals and families who stay at the various shelters pay a portion of their monthly income for rent while they receive help transitioning to permanent, sustainable housing
“We also help them deal with underlying issues that may cause homelessness,” Ready stressed. “Some people are fleeing violence, or face chronic physical or mental health conditions. Others struggle with addictions and may be in recovery. Many children grapple with adverse childhood events which can scar them with trauma difficult to overcome. Our trained service coordinators help people get permanent housing and then stick with them to help them get or keep a job, work to resolve health and mental health issues, or finish their education.”
Ready and the shelter staff in Vergennes credit local churches for their help in the community.
“I hesitate to mention any one Addison County church because they all do such wonderful things to help the homeless and they work with us,” she said.
Each December, John Graham hosts an annual candlelight vigil and sleep out. This year’s event took place Saturday, Dec. 7, in downtown Middlebury. The event is kind of a “camp meeting” to increase awareness about local homelessness. Every year the vigil includes hot drinks, sharing and lots of tents. The event also typically features dinner at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church Parish Hall.
At the 2018 sleep out, Ready recalls, snow fell throughout the night and attendees woke up covered in several inches of cold, wet snow.
“Each person shares the uncertainly and fear that homeless neighbors often feel — not having a safe place to stay, a door that shuts and locks, a place to go after work or school, a private place of one’s own. It’s amazing how much dread you can feel on a cold, dark night.
“But in the morning we warm up around the fire, share some coffee, and know throughout the coming year many of our neighbors will get safe housing because we spent a cold night by the falls.”
Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.