Dukes County government, a vestige of colonial governance that continues to siphon off tax dollars that ought to be left in town coffers under the direct control of those more directly responsible for their neighbors’ money, continues to seek ways to make itself useful.
This week, reporter Monica Busch reports that the earnest and hard-working Dukes County manager, Martina Thornton, is prepared to expand the county’s limited portfolio of services and add social outreach to the mix.
The Times reports that Ms. Thornton, with assistance from Rep. Tim Madden, was able to convince lawmakers to earmark $45,000 in the state budget that will fund an Island-based homelessness caseworker through the Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC) of Hyannis, a nonprofit that offers a multitude of housing programs that include developing affordable housing for seniors, families, and individuals; providing emergency shelter and homelessness prevention assistance for individuals and families; according to its website, the administration of the largest housing-subsidy program in the Cape region; and family self-sufficiency and employment services.
That expertise and any closer working relationship that develops with HAC can only benefit the Island and those in need of HAC services.
The caseworker will formalize what was a volunteer one-person department that consisted of the associate commissioner for homelessness. Connie Teixeira filled that role until her resignation last January.
At the same time, Ms. Thornton prevailed upon the Dukes County Health Council to engage a team of students from the University of Massachusetts Medical School Rural Health Scholars Program, which has periodically visited the Island for study projects, to tackle the question of homelessness.
The rural scholars are scheduled to present their findings this Thursday in the West Tisbury library. Hopefully, their report will help to define a problem that currently appears to be based on anecdotes and very little data.
What is the nature of homelessness on the Island?
Is it the Island individual or family suddenly left homeless when a property is no longer available? Is it the individual or family who can no longer afford to make the Island a home? Is it the individual who abuses drugs and/or alcohol, or the petty criminal who has worn out his or her welcome among friends, family, and landlords, and now has no place to live? Is it the individual caught in a domestic situation that has become untenable?
We cannot expect a hard and fast number, given the fluid nature of each of these situations, but anecdotes alone are not sufficient.
Last winter, a county point-in-time count of Island homeless turned up 15 people who fit the narrow state definitions of homelessness. Ms. Thornton said the state’s definition of a homeless individual is extremely narrow and does not accommodate the Vineyard experience, but if that is so what is that Island definition, and what might those numbers be?
The county initiative is welcome, but the problem has yet to be defined in any quantifiable way. The rural scholars may be able to help answer the question, but theirs is hardly a definitive study.
A new county program, however well-intentioned, ought to be part of a coordinated approach. We can expect that the county will work with Martha’s Vineyard Community Services and Island clergy who are organizing a winter shelter, as well as town leaders.
Seniors, fill out the survey
Martha’s Vineyard’s cohort over 65 years of age is already greater than the state’s by a third — about 20 percent locally, vs. 15 percent for the Commonwealth. By 2030, not very far in the future as planning horizons go, our over-65 population will reach about 32 percent, about half again higher than projected for Massachusetts.
Projected population changes 15 years out are virtually unstoppable even should we want to engineer our demographic composition, and the infrastructure needed to accommodate the needs of a community where one in three of us is over 65 is substantial and complex. And it isn’t just a matter of services and costs — the interests, resources, finances, and public outlook of an aging population will inexorably alter the texture of Vineyard life.
The Island’s Healthy Aging Task Force, aided by academic teams from UMass and Brandeis University, is well along in the basic work of collecting and analyzing the data needed for the rigorous planning process we need. At this juncture, a critical opportunity to obtain confidential individual information from among the Island’s estimated 4,800 residents over 65 is at hand. A well-marked survey instrument has been delivered to every Island mailbox, and can be filled out online at brandeis.qualtrics.com as well. Everyone over 65 needs to be heard from. The survey is simple and direct, and takes only 15 minutes to complete. Please respond as quickly and thoroughly as possible.