Vineyard homeless census raises questions, provides few answers


Efforts last week by county officials and local volunteers to assess the homeless population on Martha’s Vineyard highlighted the difficulty in defining homelessness in a rural, seasonal community. The total count turned up 15 people who met the official definition of homelessness. The survey is part of an annual campaign by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to determine the homeless population in the United States, as mandated by Congress. The Cape & Islands Regional Network on Homelessness (CIRNH) and Dukes County officials planned and executed the census, the results of which will be integral to obtaining state and federal funding.

Marching orders
The boots on the ground for the Point in Time (PIT) survey belonged to 11 volunteers who fanned out over the Island from Wednesday, Feb. 25, through Sunday, Feb. 28, to ask one question — “Where did you sleep on Wednesday night, Feb. 25?” Volunteers attended church suppers, visited libraries, and did outdoor field searches in the state forest and other locations recommended by local law enforcement, in order to get an accurate tally of Island “unsheltered homeless.” The CIRNH survey defines “unsheltered homeless” as famIlies or individuals who slept in a place “not designed for, or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.” A list of examples included abandoned buildings, bridges or overpasses, airports, bus or train stations, outdoor encampments, and emergency shelters. The survey was done anonymously, and it provides for no distinctions as to the cause of homelessness, such as unemployment, substance abuse, or mental illness.

Challenging circumstances
CIRNH director Paula Schnepp said HUD schedules the PIT survey in the dead of winter because shelters in urban areas are at peak occupancy. The lack of an emergency shelter on Martha’s Vineyard contributes to a dispersed homeless population, which, combined with the hunkering down that accompanies an epic winter, made the challenge of an accurate count even more difficult. This year’s PIT survey was originally scheduled for the end of January, but due to a succession of snowstorms, HUD officials granted Massachusetts regional networks a one-month extension. Unfortunately, the rescheduled PIT was done in the throes of a record-setting cold snap.

Not surprisingly, no Vineyard homeless were found in the outdoor field searches. “I can’t imagine people in shacks with no heat, or sleeping in the state forest, in this weather,” volunteer Ewell Hopkins of Oak Bluffs said. “I expect church suppers are going to be our best source.”

There is a shared supper held every day of the week on Martha’s Vineyard, provided by a rotation of Island houses of worship.

After four days of canvassing, the 2015 PIT homeless count for Martha’s Vineyard totaled 15, according to Dukes County manager Martina Thornton. Two respondents were living in their vehicles, one in an abandoned building, and one in a shed bereft of insulation.

The 2015 total was a significant drop from last year, when Connie Teixeira, former Dukes County associate commissioner for the homeless, estimated the Island population to be 160, according to the minutes of the Feb. 12, 2014, Dukes County commission meeting.

“Fifteen is an undercount by any measure,” Dukes County regional housing authority (DCRHA) executive director David Vigneault told The Times. “I’m not saying there are 200 people alternating between tents in the state forest and living under Little Bridge. But the notion that we don’t have a functional homeless population because we had a number of 15, I don’t buy it.”

Mr. Vigneault said that for a truly accurate accounting of homeless Islanders, members of the support community need time to build the trust that elicits honest answers to difficult questions. “PIT doesn’t work here,” he said. “It’s designed for metropolitan areas where there’s more anonymity. People on the Island don’t want to be known as homeless, and they go to great lengths to hide it. It’s the person that’s been filling up cups of coffee for years at Grace Church that is going to have the trust factor.” Mr. Vigneault said irrespective of the PIT results, the survey was valuable simply because it has sparked discourse on the Island.

Ms. Thornton acknowledged preparations for the survey were rushed, saying she was short-staffed due to Ms. Teixeira’s sudden resignation in January. “We did the best we could in the short time we had,” she said. She also said the severe weather, and the hunkering down that came with it, likely drove down the count, and she intends to organize another survey in April.

“Fifteen is still a sizeable number,” Ms. Schnepp said. “If someone was unsheltered, meaning in a place not intended for human habitation, on that evening, that’s a number of concern.”

The CIRNH manages 161 beds on the Cape, and receives more than $1.6 million annually from HUD to create housing resources for the homeless in the Cape and Islands. At present, there are no CIRNH-managed facilities on the Island. For years, Islanders in crisis have been helped by an informally-run hotel voucher program, formerly overseen by Ms. Teixeira, which has provided Island families and individuals in crisis with a roof over their head until they transition to more stable housing.

NOAH, in Hyannis, is the most likely shelter destination for an Islander in need. For years, a transitional apartment program managed by the DCRHA discreetly provided housing to Islanders for six months to a year as they worked their way toward a more permanent housing solution, be it ownership or rental, on- or off-Island. The program ended when the budget for the state department of transitional assistance was gutted in the 2008 financial meltdown.

Redefining homeless
The 2001 Martha’s Vineyard Housing Needs Assessment defined any Islander without year-round housing as “homeless.” The definition of homeless on the Island continues to be a moving target.

“We’ve had many discussions and debates about defining who is homeless,” Ms. Schnepp said. “There’s so many people in unstable housing in our region. Someone who’s couch surfing won’t show up as ‘unsheltered homeless,’ yet they could be kicked out the next day. If someone stayed in a motel the evening of the 25th, and that was paid for by an agency of some sort, that person is considered ‘homeless but sheltered.’”

HUD defines ‘at risk of homelessness’ to be an individual or family with income below 30 percent of median income for the geographic area; insufficient resources immediately available to attain housing stability; has moved frequently because of economic reasons; is living in the home of another because of economic hardship; been notified that their right to occupy their current housing or living situation will be terminated; lives in severely overcrowded housing.

A growing number of Islanders fit a growing number of the HUD criteria for being at risk of homelessness (Feb. 19, “Martha’s Vineyard housing shortage reaches critical mass”). The relatively low number of Vineyard homeless counted last week “shows how Islanders look out for each other in hard times,” Ms. Thornton said. However, it does not augur well for an increase in state and federal funding in the future. “We’re going to have to bake this cake ourselves,” Mr. Vigneault said.

Oak Bluffs Police Lieutenant Tim Williamson said that homelessness of the sort where an individual may be sleeping in a vehicle or on the street is not a problem in his town. Lieutenant Williamson said that on the rare occasion that his officers come across an individual down on his or her luck, they will reach out to sympathetic innkeepers to try and find temporary shelter at a discount.

From time to time, Mr. Williamson said, there will be reports from seasonal homeowners in the spring who suspect that people were squatting in their house. “We always get a couple of calls,” he said. But as far as a homelessness problem in the town of Oak Bluffs, he said, “I don’t see it.”