By Tammy Daniels
06:32PM / Thursday, October 25, 2018
Director Kathy Keeser and board President Michael Goodwin welcomes community partners to Louison House's annual meeting.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Louison House has sheltered more than 100 people over the past year — some for months, some for a night.
"The reality is the people who come to the house have all kinds of different situations," said Executive Director Kathy Keeser on Thursday. "They are likable. That's sometimes what people forget about. When they come to an agency, [people] think they have all these difficulties first ... what do they have wrong with them?
"We look at it another way, what is positive about people who come to the house?"
Louison House family shelter is there to provide transitional housing at the Flood House and permanent supportive housing at its Bracewell Avenue residence or through Belvedere Realty.
It also offers emergency shelter for people who find themselves in unfortunate conditions, such as a gentleman trying to walk to West Virginia who arrived in the city exhausted and out of food and water. A stay on a cot at the Flood House, a resupplied backpack, food and a water bottle enabled him to continue.
For others, it may be months before they can find a home of their own, said Keeser. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides housing funds for up to two years but the house's occupants had been averaging about three to four months to find housing.
"With some of the rising costs in rental, it's going more to the four-five months in the last six months," she said. "We've been noticing that trend getting longer to find housing for people."
Keeser and members of the board of directors ran through the numbers on Thursday morning at the family shelter's annual meeting, held at Terra Nova Church's newly renovated space for The Green on Main Street.
Louison House is there for people who have lost a job, lost a home, or just need shelter because of circumstances beyond their control. It offers 24-hour shelter; clothing, food and furniture; life skills training; referrals to support services; support in moving to permanent housing; tenant advocacy; career and education planning, and counseling.
Louison House's daily average census has ticked up this past year, from 18 to 23.9, and has hit highs of 27 during the summer, something usually only seen during the winter, said board President Michael Goodwin. It served more than 20,000 meals — prepared by the house occupants together — and calls for services and referrals jumped by two or three hundred.
"What's happening in North Adams is amazing ... there's a lot happening in North Adams," Goodwin said, referring to new real estate investments in the city. "But there's another side. Folks who are looking for their place in this."
Keeser said there are a number of factors driving the increase in numbers at the shelter and for resources. Rising rents are part of it but also Louison House is making more of an effort to follow up on inquiries.
But Louison House, for the moment, is only in the Flood House on Church Street. The original Victorian residence in Adams named for founder Theresa Louison has been empty since a disastrous fire in 2016 caused a "cone of damage" from the sprinkler system.
It's taken this long to secure the funding to repair, renovate and upgrade the aged structure as well as do some refurbishment at Flood House, which the shelter acquired from the defunct Housing Opportunities Inc.
There's $1.6 million in government funds and state-backed interest-free loans with the expectation all the paperwork will be signed at the beginning of the year so Geary Construction can begin work. Keeser said Berkshire Housing has taken on the role of development agency.
Once completed, the organization will have 27 units of rental housing — 22 transitional and five supportive apartments — with the ability to serve families with children, single men and women, and a fully accessible apartment on the ground floor of Louison House.
And to avoid all the confusion of Louison House the agency and Louison House the building — now that there is more than one structure — Keeser said the idea of simply naming it "Terry's House" has been considered. She is hoping to have the house nearing completion by the third anniversary of the fire.
The board also elected new officers, with Julie MacDonald elected as president, Paul Gordon as vice president, Emily Schiavone as secretary, and Erin Scott as treasurer. The board also approved a fiscal 2019 budget with a $22,000 hole in it.
A legislative earmark for emergency services didn't include Louison House in the last state budget.
"The loss of that earmark really forced us to look hard at our expenses this year," Gordon said. "In the face of set HUD financing, rising costs around the city for housing, the board thought that these services we were providing were critically important to the community and we couldn't cut those expenses."
Rather than cut programs or staff, the board determined to approve a budget of $461,500 with the shortfall. Last year's budget resulted in a $10,000 surplus. The nonprofit gets its funding from federal and local grants, fundraising and income from rents and fees.
"We feel confident in our story, we feel confident in the programs we provide and the services we provide," Gordon said. "In the next year we'll be working hard to manage our expenses as best we can and we'll also be working hard to find alternative funding sources to meet this need."
The shelter also thanked its many partner agencies, local officials and the community for their support.
"The work we do takes a village, we cannot do what we do without all these agencies and dignitaries and folks we call upon," Goodwin said. "Just the friendship and the relationships, having conversations in Stop & Shop and Big Y and at a restaurant catching up with folks and telling them what's going on what can they donate and so on."
Keeser said the shelter fills a need in the community and that it was not impossible to think that "most of us could end up in a similar situation" of suddenly losing a home.
"We've all probably touched or been touched by Louison House along the way in our lives. ... We connect with students, we connect with other volunteers, with local businesses and agencies. And I think that's key to knowing who we are, we're not this isolated house we're part of the community ... our people are in the community ... they look like everybody else and they are."
Keeser and Goodwin gave special recognition to Tyler Bissaillon of DJ Bizz Entertainment and manager Morgan Leveque, representing Mingo's Sports Bar, who were honored for being great partners and friends.
Goodwin said he and Mingo's and Greylock Bowl & Golf owner Osmin Alvarez discussed the idea of using one of Bissaillon's musical bingo nights at the eatery for a fundraiser. A record turnout of 130 patrons in June raised $4,000, all of which went to Louison House programs. A holiday music bingo night fundraiser is planned for Saturday, Dec. 1.
Louison House also recognized "super volunteer" Brandy Doran, who has become so committed to the shelter that she and her husband Mike got married there by service coordinator Maureen Clark.
"Mike and I were beyond happy to be wed at the place where our love story began and grateful to share our special day with our closest friends and family," Doran wrote as part of the annual report.
"I'm happy to be here and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," she said when she was presented with her certificate.
Disclosure: Alvarez is owner Boxcar Media and publisher of iBerkshires.com and its related sites; Bissaillon is also a sales executive for Boxcar Media.