J.W. Riker invests in Travelers Aid’s future

The house is a Victorian with a gable and neatly-arranged bushes that surround a screened-in porch off Cranston Street in Providence. It is noble, if unspectacular.

But to an 18-year-old whose life has tumbled out of control, it may be the last stop before the street. Or worse.

The house is the latest acquisition of Travelers Aid – the national nonprofit which provides temporary housing to homeless people. Locally, the Rhode Island chapter had been housing young homeless people in a three-bedroom apartment near Providence College.

20-year lease
But now, the housing program has a more permanent base. Last summer, J.W. Riker Real Estate Network bought the three-story home and leased it to Travelers Aid for $1 per year for 20 years. The house will hold three people on each floor and will be open to people aged 16-21.

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Its residents will be allowed to stay there for as much as a year while they go to school, work, save money, and make plans to become independent. The services that the shelter will provide for young people with unstable lives are critical, leaders of the local chapter say.

”This is very important work,” said Executive Director Marion F. Avarista. “If we don’t work with these people they’ll become our responsibility for the rest of their lives – no one has worked with them to become self-sufficient.”

Travelers’ temporary living program, now centered at the “Riker House,” is many people’s first step toward independence. Residents must obey curfews and help with the chores, cooking, and shopping. They attend weekly meetings and seminars about health, living skills, and budgeting. Everyone must go to school, work 20 hours a week, read a book a week and submit a weekly book report, and pay a small living fee.

None of the residents may have a criminal record.

The program was a savior to 20-year-old Salenia House, a former resident who is moving to her own apartment with her baby girl. House lived in the Providence apartment last winter after finding herself homeless. Living there was a dramatic change. And at first she rebelled, almost getting herself kicked out for violating the 5 p.m. curfew.

But then she settled into life there – and into taking responsibility for herself. She is now planning to re-enter a degree program at New England Tech to become a surgeon’s assistant.

”I learned how to be myself,” House said. “This is the best thing that happened to me.”

Riker President Gil Bricault Sr. would be glad to hear that. Riker bought the house for $83,000 by getting agents to donate a portion of their sales commissions to “Riker Cares Inc.,” the charitable arm of the company. While Riker Cares has been around for about six years, it wasn’t until employees there saw the Home for Little Wanderers of the DeWolfe Co. – the company that has recently purchased J.W. Riker – that the idea to buy a house came up.

At first, there was an assumption that Riker could never afford to buy a house. But then, Bricault recalled, agent Pam Anderson Sparn asked a question to which no one had a good answer: Why not?

”The more we thought about it,” he said, “the more we said, ‘You’re right. Why can’t we?'”

The decision to buy a house having been made, the next step was to find a group to donate it to. Travelers Aid, by accounts on both sides, was a perfect match. Agents George Martini, Evvie Garey, Lila-Jean Trivisonno, Anderson Sparn, and Gail Doherty all contributed to finding the home.

Bricault said Riker Cares had accumulated enough cash to pay for the down payment. Now, the company will hold an annual fundraising gala to help it pay off the mortgage. Workers became more enthusiastic about the Riker Cares program once it was announced that the company planned to buy the house, he said.

”Participation grew once we got the house,” he said. “It’s something you can feel and touch.”

People like Nicole Messier, a 21-year-old mother who had nowhere to go to after being forced from her apartment on the East Side of Providence, will benefit from it. Messier moved into the home to get herself through the transition period between apartments. Having gotten her respite through Travelers Aid, she is now living in Central Falls and plans to attend the Police Academy in Lincoln after finishing her degree at Community College of Rhode Island.

”It was that (Travelers Aid) or be homeless,” Messier said.

Which is the predicament that many young people who fall between the cracks of state care and adult independence find themselves in, according to Travelers Aid. The new house – which is being renovated now and furnished by donations – will provide a home to some of those people.

While Travelers is looking into extending the year deadline for some instances, most people who enter the home must work quickly to make themselves independent, noted Fred A. Trapassi Jr., director of client and program services for Travelers Aid.

”They have one year, which goes by very quickly, to become self-sufficient and get their lives back together,” he said.

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