Louison House is expected to be ready for occupancy at the beginning of the year.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Joanna became swamped in debt and began to consider suicide. Kathy found herself homeless after years as a live-in caretaker.
Both found succor at Louison House.
"I hid all my troubles from family and friends until it all came crashing down," said Joanna at Louison House's annual meeting Friday at The Green community space. She entered the family shelter with her head held low and, after a little time to grieve, the staff told her it was time to start working on her life.
She sold a house she could no longer afford, got an apartment for herself and her son and is still working with shelter on budgeting.
"The staff at Louison House saved my life," Joanna said. "Words cannot express how thankful and appreciative I am."
Kathy entered Louison House after a couch-surfing for a year when she was turned out of her uncle's house after caring for him for 16 years.
"My stay was only six weeks. But the healthy encouragement that I received is something I will never forget," she said. "I am just one person out of hundreds that have been able to put their lives back together due to the hard working and helpful Louison staff."
It's success stories like that, said outgoing board member Michael Goodwin, which keeps the nonprofit organization going.
"This is why we do what we do and why we've done it so long," he said. "Why it's important to move forward with it.
Over the past year, the shelter has taken in 76 individuals for transitional housing and 26 in the shelter's three permanent supportive housing facilities. The average stay for families in transitional housing has increased to 6 1/2 months and permanent supportive is ranging from two to five years.
Goodwin said the reason for the lengthening stay is the changing nature of North Adams — as investment has made its way in, housing costs are rising. It's topic being discussed by a committee on gentrification and inclusive development of which he's a member.
"What we're talking about is that this development is wonderful for North Adams and we're very excited about it," he said. "But we've got to remember there are folks who may not see the benefits right away."
"So we look at our numbers, we're very conscious of the fact that there are folks who are still going to need our support."
Although the shelter services a large number of young families and children, aging baby boomers are becoming a growing concern, he said, and "we've seen the largest increase in out-of-state folks coming toward us from the New York area, the Southern Vermmont area looking for support right now."
Over the past year, Louison House has served 21,281 meals and taken in nine tons of food from pantries and Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. It averages $500 a month worth of food, about 85 percent of which is donated.
"It's amazing when you look at how we're able to do what we do, in essence, the program to not only give shelter but to give nutrition to these children and these families," Goodwin said. "So they can go forward and try to make their way in the world."
In total, the shelter has helped more than 800 people over the past year — from providing direct shelter, to connecting them with appropriate programs, to making calls on their behalf to helping pay their bills and manage their finances.
Executive Director Kathy Keeser said the shelter is committed to finding solutions for people in need, telling of a man who was not only homeless but who needed physical care. It took an emergency meeting at Berkshire Medical Center to find a place for him in a nursing home.
"He was being turned away everywhere and, of course, because he was being turned away he also was not wanting to do it," she said. "I said we're not going to just shuffle him off."
The shelter's volunteer Advisory Council is contacting those who have been through Louison House over the past three years to get feedback on what programs are working and what it can do better.
Keeser said as welcoming as Louison House wants to be, it really doesn't want people to have to depend on it.
"We're following up on those guys to keep them from coming to us," she said. "We don't want you to have to stay in a shelter."
Come January, the availability of beds will increase with the reopening of the original Louison House in Adams. The Victorian was damaged in a fire three years ago and it took another $300,000 on top of the insurance money to fix a multitude of issues in the aged building.
The newly renovated building will have 22 beds with a handicapped apartment on the ground floor along with six men's beds; the second floor will be the family unit — recognizing families come in all forms — and a second one-bedroom apartment will be on the third floor.
Keeser said the expectation is to have a certificate of occupancy by January and move in during January or February. Then the shelter can turn to the Flood House in North Adams, which it has been working out of since the fire. That house will have a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor and two two-bedroom apartments upstairs. Offices will be in both buildings. The total cost is estimated at $1.7 million.
The shelter's ability to restore Louison House couldn't happen without the monetary support of its community partners such as Williams College and local banks, Keeser said. That money was the key to leveraging $275,000 in state funds to cover the final costs.
Louison House is currently in good shape financially, with a projected deficit of $11,000 turning into $22,000 in the black to end the year. That's a far cry from three years ago when it almost closed. But the nonprofit is pushing for more fundraisers to support its programs, such as buying a personalized paver for the walkway at Louison House, a musical bingo event at Mingo's Sports Bar & Grill on Dec. 7 and a donation portal on the website.
Keeser reminded those gathered Friday morning that people who utilize Louison House aren't that much different than themselves. They're just trapped in circumstances beyond their control.
"We're all just a few paychecks away ...," she said. "If we didn't have family or friends to turn to when something happened, we could be in the same situation."
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