Phil Gray, Foundation for Affordable Housing

We recently got the opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with Phil Gray, president of the Foundation for Affordable Housing, a Lex End Homelessness Continuum of Care partner. The Foundation has run the St. James Place apartments, housing for the working homeless, since 1995 and St. James Place II, a transitional housing program for previously homeless veterans, since 2006. Phil has been the president of the Foundation for the past ten years, and we got to chat with him about the challenges their residents face, the ways that St. James Place is working to help, and the importance of the work they do. Our conversation is below.

1. Tell me a little bit about yourself—personal, professional, or anything else you’d like to share about who you are. How did you get involved with your current role at the Foundation?

I’m from Lexington, I’ve lived here almost all of my life. I have been doing this, operating St. James Place as president of the Foundation for Affordable Housing, for about ten years. 

My background is really in the hotel business, I worked at Hyatt for a number of years, then I worked at Kentucky State Parks for 20 years, managing resorts and managing parks. So I don’t have a background in anything that has to do with homelessness, but I do have a background in managing facilities. So that’s how I got into this. It’s been a wonderful experience.

When I retired from Kentucky State Parks after 20 years, that’s when I stepped into this role. I grew up in Central Christian Church, which started the Foundation for Affordable Housing back in 1991. We are not a religiously affiliated foundation, but approximately half of our board members are members of Central Christian church. My wife, who worked at Central Christian Church for thirty years before she retired, was serving on the board. And the previous president was stepping away right as I was retiring and looking to get more involved, so the timing just worked out.

2. What does a typical day of work look like for you? 

Well, the Foundation has been doing this work for a long time. They built St. James Place apartments in 1995. So for twenty-seven years the Foundation has been housing the previously homeless in Lexington. Then in 2006 they built St. James Place II, where we run a transitional program for previously homeless veterans. So we’ve been doing this for a really long time. 

The things that are part of a typical day all revolve around managing the facility. We’ve got to clean stuff, we’ve got to make sure everything is working, do work orders, get rooms ready for somebody new to move in, paint and clean rooms when somebody moves outthose are the repetitive things that we do constantly. 

Nothing else is normal, ever. When you’re dealing with humans, this is the way it is. When I worked in the hotel business, it was the same way, different every single day, which I like. 

Here the challenges are the residentsall of them are really good people. But in the homeless community, there are a great deal of mental issues. And we also have a lot more residents living with us who have physical challenges now than we’ve ever had in the past. We have way more residents with wheelchairs now, for example, than when I started ten years ago. So just helping residents navigate what are always challenging days for them is what we do. Every day is hard for our residents. Life is hard. So we try to do what we can. 

Now, St. James is just an apartment complex. Our residents have a lease, just like any other renter. But even though our main role is to operate the facility, we do help people every day with simple thingsyou know, what does this letter mean, how do I get a phone, everyday things that folks need help to do.

One of the things that we’re excited about is that we just got a grant to hire a social worker. We’re waiting on final approval for that. This will be something new for us and our residents, and we’re really hopeful about it. Our residents tend to live isolated lives, and they are slow to trust, especially new people. That’s going to be the big challenge, getting them to engage, but there’s a number of them that could use that additional support that we just haven’t had the staff or resources or professional knowledge to provide before.  

3. Can you tell us a little bit about the day to day operations of St. James Place and the residents who live there?

Currently, St. James Place apartment has 102 units, and 86 are rented right now. We actually got affordable housing grants to completely renovate the St. James Place apartments, and we are finishing that up now. We’re down to the last few rooms of that. 

In our veterans program, the building has 40 rooms, 32 of those rooms are part of the program, and 27 are occupied right now. We’re really at a pretty high occupancy rate across the board right now. We tend to run a bit higher in occupancy in the winter.

The veterans program is through a grant with the VA and it’s a highly structured intensive program that includes recovery, life skills classes, legal helpall kinds of things. Most of the veterans we get have been homeless for a long time. And it’s always been our belief that while homelessness in itself is a problem, it’s also a huge sign of other problems. So we need to address and fix why folks are homeless all the time. And we’ve been really successful at that over the years. 

Now, it’s a struggle for everybody right now across the nation, not just us, but the huge increase in rent is a real problem and the availability of apartments is really low. We’re addressing that with eight rooms in our veterans housing that are permanent housing we can move people into. Of course, we can only accept single persons, so that doesn’t offer any solutions to families. And this is a problem across the country right now, but Lexington has had incredibly high jumps in rent, and it’s really becoming an issue. 

Here’s the thingwe hear a lot of people throw around the term affordable housing. But it’s not affordable for the people we work with. It’s just not. We are not subsidized housingeverybody who lives here pays their own rent, on the apartment side. At least 75% of them get a government check, SSI, Social Security, or Disability. Generally that’s all the income they have. An average check is a little over $900, maybe less than $800. That’s all the money they have. And they pay us $440, which includes utilities. This is a really low income situation for people. If affordable housing is $1,500 a month, who can afford that? Certainly not a homeless person. So that’s where we are.

4. Why is the work you do important? What is the value of the work the Foundation does in Lexington? 

The Foundation for Affordable Housing believes that no one should be cold, hungry, or afraid. When you move into St. James place, you’re coming to us from a homeless situation. If you’re not homeless or about to be homeless, you aren’t moving in here. We know that if St. James place didn’t exist, that some of these people would not survive. They would die. Whatever you think the value of that is, and we think it’s pretty high, that’s what people need to understand. If we put these people on the street, many of them will die. 

People who have suffered abuse, are in wheelchairs, are schizophrenic, they won’t survive out there. So that’s where we are. We are literally saving people’s lives. Not as many as we would like. We can’t help everyone, and that’s tough. But that’s the value of what we are doing here, we are saving lives. The stakes are really high. 

It’s not just us, it’s all the people and organizations across the city who are doing this work. I really applaud these people, I really admire the work they all do, and there are so many excellent people doing this work. The city of Lexington has done a wonderful job. All the directors who have come through OHPI have been extraordinarily wonderful, they have worked really hard at this, and I applaud them for what they’ve done. Lexington is really making an effort.

The miracle of St. James Place is not them living here, it’s the first day that they wake up here. And they’re in a clean room, and it’s safe, and it’s warm, it’s air conditioned. That’s the miracle of St. James Place. It’s a good, clean, safe place to live. We have wonderful success stories here. We have to be happy about that. And by we, I mean everyone in the city who is doing this work. We have to be happy about the individual wins. That’s what this is about. Each individual.

5. What is one thing you wish Lexington community members knew about homelessness? 

I wish they knew more about the individuals, the struggles that people have had. Most of the people we work with have been dealing with these kinds of problems their entire life. For many of these people, this is the nicest place they’ve ever lived. We need to try to understand—if you understood the individual stories, I think you’d have a different take on it. 

And whatever you do when you talk about homelessness, please don’t say to anybody that they need to get a job. Because bring whoever you want, all the employers you want, to St. James Place, and it won’t work—there is no simple “tell them to get a job” solution to this. This is a complex problem. These are people who have real problems, real demons, and it’s not simple. But we have to try to help. 

There is one huge gap that exists in services—there are people who live here who need a level of care that’s higher. They need some kind of affordable assisted living. But it doesn’t exist. The gap between St. James Place, local shelters, and that next level is a huge gap. That gap is something we need to address as a society and as a community. 

Get involved with LEH by joining the Continuum of Care today. Partnership is free and highly encouraged for any organization or person working in the field of human services. You can also contact one of our many partners, such as the Foundation for Affordable Housing, to ask about opportunities to get involved. Learn more on our website or by following us on social media @lexendhomelessness.