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.
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.
Carol Dyar-Eaton, who lives in Madison and is on the board of directors for the shelter, said she would help to establish a renewable energy curriculum teaching veterans to build and install solar panels.
“It’s about giving them a sense of purpose in the community,” she said.
Work to be done
For now, the focus is on getting the building in shape.
The upstairs is almost in total disrepair. All the walls have been torn out and there are a number of leaks in the roof. Water poured in during the recent storm. There are no lights. There is a dusty, wooden staircase across from a room that Erwin Emery said he would like to see be the kitchen.
“It’s probably not one of the first building in Madison, but it’s been here a long time,” he said.
They’ve replaced most of the ceiling tiles on the first floor, which were either water damaged or missing, and are renovating the back office.
“I’d hate to hire somebody else if I can do it,” he said.
Melanie Griffin is the owner of Tanglz salon, the storefront between the thrift store and bridal shop, which she rents from the Emerys.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen two people work so hard,” Griffin said. “He does the electrical work and the painting. She’s always raising money and putting together grants.”
“I think the shelter is a really good idea,” she said. “I think veterans need a place where they can go.”
Erwin Emery said not everyone in the community has been so receptive.
“I was hesitant to call it a homeless shelter because I think there is a concern of some people that it will attract people who are going to be hanging out on the street,” he said. “And it’s really going to be more of a transitional place where they can come and get their life straightened out.”
Despite the potential challenges to opening the home they envision, the Emerys are optimistic.
Shirley Emery has worked in nursing since 1975, including at the Bingham Health Center, Tissues Boarding Home, in Athens, and Somerset Residential, in Madison, as well as in private care in homes.
She also opened and ran her own home for the elderly for eight years, Cooley’s Nursing Home, in Madison, which she eventually sold in 2002. The home had six residents and Shirley Emery said she did most of the work herself, with the help of her husband.
The Emerys plan to start with eight residents at the new veterans shelter and potentially have a capacity of around 30, she said.
“I think there is a lot of potential in this building,” said Erwin Emery.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368