November 4, 2012

Madison couple dreams of veterans' shelter on Main Street

Erwin and Shirley Emery want to turn 55 Main St. into a residential facility for veterans in need

By Rachel Ohm
Staff Writer

MADISON -- On a quiet corner of Main Street in Madison is an old building with three storefronts: a bridal shop, hair and nail salon, and a thrift store.

click image to enlarge

Carol Dyar-Eaton, left, and Erwin and Shirley Emery, inside their planned veterans shelter, in downtown Madison, on Wednesday.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Their facades blend into the line of shops -- an insurance company, a pizza place, a bank -- but something about this thrift store sets it apart from other shops in the neighborhood: a sign in the window that reads, "Future Home for Vets."

The store is empty. Its owner, Erwin Emery, sits in an office in back of the hair salon.

"That way I can keep an eye on both," he said, nodding to the bridal shop.

A few months ago, Emery and his wife, Shirley, bought the building at 55 Main St. in Madison, with plans to start a shelter for homeless veterans on two derelict, upstairs floors. They took over the bridal shop that occupied one of the storefronts, rented out the hair salon and opened a thrift store to raise proceeds for their project.

Last week, they got their nonprofit license from the state and set up a board of directors.

"This is just the beginning of the process," said Erwin Emery, who is 64 and a veteran of the Vietnam War. "But it's our dream. We feel the need is there. We want veterans to be self-sufficient and know they are worthy."

Shirley Emery, 65, is a member of both the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The couple lives near the Trinity Men's Shelter in Skowhegan and she said it was there she recognized the need of area veterans.

"The need for shelters is tremendous," said Bill Oakes, the office manager at Trinity. "We're lucky we still have a couple open beds here."

He said that at any time there are several veterans staying at the 60-bed Skowhegan shelter, but the shelter can only offer them so much.

"It really made me sad to see about 60 guys in one humongous room," Shirley Emery said, talking about the Skowhegan shelter. "There was no privacy. We're hoping to have two people in a room at our shelter."

First of its kind

Oakes said that most homeless shelters will take in veterans, but few cater specifically to their needs.

"We're not equipped to help vets. We don't know the services or have the programs they need. We can help them get appointments other places, but that's about all we can do," he said.

Susie Whittington, a social worker for the homeless at the Maine Department of Veterans Affairs, said there is some transitional housing available through independent agencies but there are no shelters that focus just on veterans in Maine.

"I've never heard of this," she said. "Any homeless veteran can stay at a homeless shelter, but there really aren't shelters specifically just for veterans."

She said there are a number of challenges associated with running a veterans' shelter.

"A lot of funding for these shelters comes from federal grants and in a rural state such as Maine you are competing against places like Detroit, San Francisco and New York," she said.

There is also the problem of making sure veterans have access to transportation for medical appointments, which Shirley Emery said could be provided through city transportation and volunteers.

She said the board of directors is working on an admissions agreement that veterans would sign prior to living at the shelter, and that initially, since there are no plans to have a support staff or social workers available, the shelter would have a stringent selection process.

Once they are established, the Emerys plan to help the veterans become as self-sufficient as possible -- cooking for themselves, learning trade skills and giving back to the community in whatever way they can.

(Continued on page 2)

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