Updated March 1, 4:45 pm: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the photos were taken at the Island Food Pantry. They are from Serving Hands.
It may be less visible here on Martha’s Vineyard than in some other areas, but poverty, homelessness, and hunger are real issues faced some of our population every day. The winter can be especially challenging, with summer money long gone, jobs scarce, and finding suitable shelter much more difficult.
“We read it in the paper at least twice a year, that in Dukes County, the average median income is one of the lowest in the state,” says Lester Holcombe of Edgartown. “We just don’t believe it. It’s sort of like Appalachia, where the hollows look beautiful, but you go back and see the trailers and sheds behind the scenes. We don’t want to see it.”
However, Mr. Holcombe, a member of the Grace Church who formerly worked in public health and urban and rural planning, and a number of other community members, churches, and organizations have not only recognized the problem, but have put systems in place to address the needs of an often overlooked community.
With a shelter system now up and running on the Island for the first time ever this winter, the Island, fortunately, is now able to provide for most of the essential survival services to those in need.
Hospitality Homes is the name of the shelter initiative launched last year by the Martha’s Vineyard Island Clergy Association. Every night of the week, one Island church provides a safe, warm place to sleep, and has dinner and breakfast for any and all who show up by 8 pm. The number of those who are availing themselves of the shelter system varies nightly from two or three to up to nine or 10 people, with the numbers growing steadily each week. Two shifts of two volunteers staff the center each night. Mr. Holcombe is one of four coordinators who take turns overseeing the operation.
Here is the information provided on the Hospitality Homes poster:
“If you are Homeless or just Out of Heating Fuel and need A Warm Place to Stay Overnight, or if you know of someone who is, spread the word. Island churches have opened their doors for overnight shelter. Men, women, and families are welcome — bedding, dinner, and breakfast are provided. Open Every Night 7 pm to 7 am. No dinner after 7:30 pm — no admission after 8 pm.”
The schedule below reflects the current arrangement. Right now only two churches are participating, but Grace Church in Vineyard Haven opened its doors to the homeless for two weeks, and will rejoin the schedule once they have made some necessary changes.
Monday: Federated Church, Edgartown
Tuesday: St. Andrew’s Parish House, Edgartown
Wednesday: St. Andrew’s Parish House, Edgartown
Thursday: Federated Church, Edgartown
Friday: St. Andrew’s Parish House, Edgartown
Saturday: St. Andrew’s Parish House, Edgartown
Sunday: St. Andrew’s Parish House, Edgartown
Mr. Holcombe and others are also working on providing warm spaces where people can get in from the cold during the gap between the closing of the shelters and the community suppers. Right now the only option is St. Andrew’s Church, where the sanctuary and pews are open all weekday mornings and afternoons.
For decades, various Island churches have provided free weekly suppers to any and all in need of a meal or just a friendly place to spend time among neighbors. Last winter, the participating churches established an arrangement that covers every night of the week, with a different church donating the food and their time to the effort. The church suppers are open to all. Mr. Holcombe, who volunteers with the Grace Church weekly supper, notes that people from all sectors of the community stop in, with the numbers ranging from 20 to up to 60 or 70 people attending. “It’s very open and welcoming,” says Mr. Holcombe. “You get a mixture of people who don’t get out a lot and want to socialize, and then you get people who are hungry. It’s nice because you often get families.”
Here is the schedule:
Sunday, 12:30 pm: Federated Church, Edgartown (lasagna lunch)
Monday, 5 pm: St. Andrew’s Church, Edgartown
Tuesday, 5:30 pm: Chilmark Community Church
Wednesday, 5:30 pm: West Tisbury Congregational Church
Thursday, 2 pm: Grace Church Thursday (Soup and Tea at Two)
Thursday, 5 pm: St. Augustine’s Church basement, Vineyard Haven
Friday, 5 pm: Grace Episcopal Church, Vineyard Haven
Saturday, 5:30 pm: Trinity Methodist Church, Oak Bluffs Campground
The Island Food Pantry has been in operation since 1981. The 100 percent volunteer-staffed organization distributes food to those in need, whether on a temporary or a more sustained basis. Their mission is to address emergency needs.
The Food Pantry, located at Grace Church in Vineyard Haven, is open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 2 to 4 pm, from mid-October through mid-April. Each individual or family is given one bag of basic foods and one bag of fresh fruits and vegetables. Visitors can also select from a table of miscellaneous items. Once a month each recipient may also receive a $25 food certificate for Stop and Shop.
From the Food Pantry website:
“People can come to the Pantry for their first visit without any qualifiers. If someone comes for two or more visits, they must bring a letter of reference from a clergy person, social agency, or employer on a letterhead indicating this person/family needs our assistance. Then the person may come once every two weeks.”
During the regular hours of the Island Food Pantry, the church also offers a clothing outlet. There are no restrictions on how often or how much people in need of clothing can take. The church relies on donations of clothing as well as blankets, linens, and other necessities.