LYNN — Almost 20 years ago, Kim Graham tried heroin for the first time. She said a friend offered it to her because she wasn’t feeling well.
Within six months, Graham lost her home and was living with her two children in her mother’s dining room.
“Every dime just gets thrown into the drug,” Graham said recently. “You don’t even care.”
After using heroin for nearly three years in the late ’90s, Graham decided to get help and went through a six-day detox program at Faxon House in Quincy. She attended Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for 90 days after her detox, and got a sponsor for additional support.
This July, Graham will be 15 years sober.
Now the Lynn resident, 54, is giving back. Through the Lynn Shelter Association , she uses her experiences to help those who are battling the same demons. She oversees about 200 cases in seven homeless shelters the association manages.
Marjorie St. Paul, executive director of the association, said that Graham has lifted countless men and women onto their feet and under a roof they can call home.
“She’s fought very hard to get to a place where she can give the life that she wants to her children,” St. Paul said. “And she has a huge heart. The number of people that she’s housed, I can’t imagine counting — people that have lived on the street for 20 to 25 years each, people that the city said were never going to be able to be housed. They’re solidly housed.”
Those people included Randy Bates, who died recently at age 68 because of medical issues from decades of drinking.
Bates and Graham met in December 2002. It was 9 a.m. when Bates came to the emergency shelter in Lynn and he was very drunk, Graham said. He called her horrible names, but she let him in anyway.
“Nobody cared if Randy lived or died,” Graham said. “And that disturbed me. Our relationship was sometimes like a bad marriage, but at the end of the day, he always said ‘thank you’ to me.
“He was a very great person. He couldn’t tell you what he had for breakfast but he could tell you what he did 20 years ago. He had these great stories about him and his buddies living outside and how they lived and how they managed, and he was just a character.”
Despite a long bout of binge drinking and homelessness, Bates was able to enjoy a few years of comfort prior to his death. Thanks to Graham, he got to watch his favorite black-and-white James Cagney films.
A few years ago, his health worsened and he had to move to a local nursing home. Longtime shelter volunteer Alison Brookes became Bates’s legal guardian. She said that Graham has taught her about what it means and feels like to be homeless.
“It’s just a fantastic story of giving back and of inspiration,” Brooks said. The Marblehead resident helps prepare holiday meals and she brought tea, cake, cookies, and clementines to the High Street shelter to honor Bates after his death.
Although Bates encountered seemingly endless struggles, he inspired Graham to put together a program for the population of homeless men and women who had nowhere to go.
In 2006, with funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, she created the Great Hill Residence at 33 High St. in Lynn. It is home to three of the Lynn Shelter Association’s programs: The Veterans Stabilization Program, Group Housing for Chronic Abusers Program, and Housing for People with AIDS.
The shelter started off with five men, Bates included, and today has about 34 men and women with a roof over their head.
“She tried to help me get back on my feet and get an apartment,” said one of the residents, George Medeiros, 62. “My own family didn’t bother with me for 15 years. When holidays come and go and no one calls, it hurts. This is somebody who cares.”
Although Graham might get tired or might have a hard day, this is work that is in her soul, St. Paul said.
“Watching her on a daily basis is surreal. She’s real and she treats everybody with a certain level of respect and dignity,’’ she said. “This is work that speaks to her heart. It’s something that she won’t turn her back on, ever.”Terri Ogan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.