Islander creates shelter in a storm

Les Holcomb organizes volunteer effort to give Islanders in need safe respite during the winter.

Les Holcomb at the Good Shepherd Parish Center in Oak Bluffs.

“This is beyond my wildest dreams,” Les Holcomb said as he entered the basement of the Good Shepherd Parish Center (GSPC) in Oak Bluffs.

Although his tone befitted someone who’d just entered a beach house in Chilmark to begin a summer holiday, Mr. Holcomb, an avuncular, soft-spoken man in his 70s, was talking about a small room that debouched from a well-maintained weight room in the basement of the GSPC. It was a “warming shelter,” advertised outside on a small, hand-painted sign next to the basement entrance. It had elements of a living room, a school cafeteria, and a gym — a cozy matching couch and loveseat bracketing an area rug, a cafeteria table and chairs sized for middle school students, and somewhat incongruously, a heavy bag hung from the ceiling.

“I told them to leave that up; it seems kind of appropriate,” he joked.

Along the wall were two boxes half-filled with socks. Dry socks are one of the many creature comforts Mr. Holcomb has arranged, with the help of a handful of volunteers, at the basement warming shelter. Five days a week, between noon and 2 pm, from the beginning of January until the end of this month, any Islander in need of warmth, food, a shower, a place to do laundry, or a compassionate ear will find it here.

“The churches do an amazing job with the nighttime shelters,” he said.

“But people have to be out of the shelters by 7 am. Before we started the warming shelter, many of them would just walk from town to town, which can be very painful when your feet are wet on a cold, windy day. This is their sane two hours of the day. Even if it’s just time to eat and to get warm, that’s time they would have been on the street.”

This is the second year Mr. Holcomb has organized warming shelters. “I started asking why there were no warming shelters here,” he said. “There’s very little help from the public sector. Dukes County used to allocate $5,000 a year for emergency housing. I think it’s down to $1,000 now. Dukes County also seems to be the only county in the commonwealth that doesn’t allow the jail to offer an empty cell to a ‘shelterless’ person unless they seem intoxicated. I was working with the Red Cross to establish a shelter, but the certification process was dragging on and on. It was pretty clear someone from the private sector had to step in to get something done.”

Mr. Holcomb began the program last year with “pop-up shelters.” “They weren’t very successful, but it put the word in people’s vocabulary, and set the stage for this year,” he said.

Mr. Holcomb said as winter approached late last year, Father Michael Nagle, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish, contacted him and offered the GSPC as a home for the warming shelter. In addition to having a comfortable room with reliable heat, there are also laundry facilities, a kitchen, and a shower. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Mr. Holcomb said.

The warming shelter is funded by the Good Shepherd Parish, the Islanders Talk Benevolent Fund, individual donors, and Mr. Holcomb and other volunteers, such as Penny Townes, who came during a reporter’s visit on this stormy Tuesday with a shepherd’s pie, and who cooks lunch three times a week. “We like to make filling, stick-to-your-ribs food,” she said. “Mac and cheese is a big favorite.”

Ms. Townes is one of 30 people who responded to Mr. Holcomb’s request for volunteers, which he posted on the Islanders Talk Facebook page this past fall. A handful of the 30 have stayed with the program.

“I think a lot of people didn’t realize it was during the workday,” Ms. Townes said. “But their hearts were in the right place.”

‘Five Freedoms’

Mr. Holcomb said there’s a core group of about 20 people who come to the warming shelter on a regular basis. The “guests,” as Mr. Holcomb calls them, range in age from mid-20s to 60. Most are men at the younger end of the scale. Some have substance abuse issues, mental health issues, or both. There are veterans with PTSD. There are people who are trying to hang on, couch-surfing, living in their cars, or living in the State Forest. There are struggling families who’ve lost the battle for year-round housing.

“I came across the ‘Five Freedoms’ of maintaining animals in a sanctuary, which is used by the SPCA and other animal rescue organizations,” Mr. Holcomb explained. “It’s food, housing, water, health care, and being able to associate with others of their species. I think people deserve that too. That’s what we want to achieve.”

“Our mantra that Les made up is ‘No judgment, feed them, and keep them warm,’” Ms. Townes said. “I’ve heard it so many times that these people are alcoholics who don’t try to better themselves, but dammit, they’re human beings; they deserve a warm place, warm food, and hugs from Les. He’s their dad.”

“Grandfather is more like it,” Mr. Holcomb said. “Or that mean fifth grade teacher.”

Mr. Holcomb stressed that even though the church is an indispensable part of the program, the warming shelter is strictly secular. “I’m not here to preach rehab, and there’s no religious component to this. I just tell people, ‘I’m 72, and I want you to live as long as I have.’ There have been a few occasions when I told someone, ‘I think you’re going to die before I do, and it makes me really sad,’” he said, his voice breaking.

Mr. Holcomb gives out bus passes at the warming shelter, for transportation but also, at the very least, to provide a warm place to sit for a few hours. He also gives out flip phones. “I gave some to the people living in the woods. I told them, ‘I know you’re tough guys, but you’re not safe out there unless you can at least call 911.’”

Mr. Holcomb said he is aware of the voices on social media who say shelterless people should go to the mainland where the cost of living is more affordable and social services are more plentiful.

“These people aren’t from Mars and Venus; they’re from the Vineyard,” he said. “Almost all of them were either born here or moved here before the age of 6. Some people say they should just leave the Island, but this is their world. This is where they grew up.”

“We don’t see many from the Brazilian community; they take care of their own,” Ms. Townes said.

Mind the gap

Mr. Holcomb has lived on the Vineyard full-time since 1995, except for several years in Connecticut taking care of his mother. He’s retired from the healthcare industry, where he started as an industrial engineer and ended up with the titles of chief operating officer, chief financial officer, and chief executive officer at healthcare organizations and facilities around the country.

“I would somehow always get involved in creating an unofficial safety net for people in the area,” he said. Mr. Holcomb said his objective in his professional and volunteer work was often to “fill the gaps” in service, and the daytime warming shelter was a gap that needed filling on Martha’s Vineyard: “The hospitality business is huge on this Island, but sometimes when it comes to taking care of our own, we’re not very hospitable.”

In addition to the warming shelter, Mr. Holcomb volunteers on the Opioid Task Force and the Housing Advisory Committee (HAC). He also started the “weekend backpack program,” a pilot program that gives 20 students from MVRHS and the Oak Bluffs School backpacks containing enough food for three meals a day on Saturday and Sunday. By tapping into the resources of the Greater Boston Food Bank, the meals cost an average of 50 cents each.

“For $500 you can provide $1,000 meals; that’s pretty good,” he said. “The entire program costs about $5,000 for the school year.”

Joe Capobianco, maintenance superintendent for GSPC, orders food from the Greater Boston Food Bank for the Houses of Grace soup suppers, the weekend backpack program, and the warming shelter. He also drives the truck to pick it up, and often cooks the food as well. He showed The Times an invoice that showed a purchase of 1,100 pounds of food for $240. “How can you beat that?” he said.

“I like doing things that don’t cost anything. If they want to morph into something bigger, that’s even better,” Mr. Holcomb said. “Next year I’m hoping to expand the warming shelter to four hours. I can’t do that here, but that’s the goal.”

Houses of Grace Church overnight shelters: Tuesday: St. Andrew’s (Edgartown), Wednesday: St. Augustine (Tisbury), Thursday: Federated Church (Edgartown), Friday, Saturday, and Sunday: St. Andrew’s (Edgartown), Monday: Federated Church (Edgartown). Arrive between 7 and 8 pm. Hot dinner and hot breakfast will be served.