New Dukes County social workers will focus on homelessness

The two newly created positions will work under the county umbrella and be funded by mainland organizations.

Dukes County manager Martina Thornton sits at her desk. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

As early as November, Dukes County will add two newly created and externally funded part-time positions for social workers under the county umbrella; their focus will be the homeless and low-income Island population. Dukes County manager Martina Thornton said it will be very beneficial to have people on the Island to focus on these groups.

One position will be funded through the Housing Assistance Corporation (HAC) in Hyannis, with funds earmarked in the state budget with the assistance of Massachusetts State Rep. Tim Madden. That individual will work with homeless or imminently homeless individuals on the Island, according to Ms. Thornton.

HAC has $45,000 to fund the social worker position, but the actual salary will be dependent on other expenses, such as travel to and from the Island.

HAC is a a nonprofit that offers many 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 worker will be hired by and report directly to HAC, and will commute between Hyannis and Martha’s Vineyard.

The Community Action Committee of the Cape and Islands (CACCI) has allotted up to $20,000 to fund the second position. That social worker will help people fill out assistance applications, such as for welfare programs.

The CACCI-funded worker will have a contractual agreement with the county, and will answer to Ms. Thornton.

Funding for both positions is only secure for one year. Future funding will depend on the extent to which each social worker is utilized in the first year, Ms. Thornton said.

Targeting homelessness

Ms. Thornton said the social worker positions are appropriate for the county to manage because it already oversees a number of social services. She plans to work with other groups, such as Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS), when appropriate. MVCS did not express interest in facilitating the social worker positions, she said.

Ms. Thornton said that the county’s Health Care Access Program already receives a number of requests for assistance with regard to seeking welfare and housing assistance. She said the two new social workers would help alleviate the requests for assistance directed through that office, which is focused on health insurance.

The HAC-funded position will be focused. “At this point, we have agreed on a job description, and the main job for that person is to work with people who experience homelessness,” she said. That social worker will also work with those imminently homeless, such as in cases where leases are ending but alternative housing has not been secured.

“That worker will do an intake; they will talk to the person and see what the situation is. They will do referrals,” Ms. Thornton said.

As of Tuesday, Ms. Thornton said original agreements to have the HAC-funded social worker on-Island part-time Monday through Friday have been upended. Instead, HAC wants this social worker to work two full days a week, which isn’t what Ms. Thornton thinks will be most helpful.

An emergency situation could pop up and a person could be forced to wait five days before that social worker would return to the Island, she said.

Ms. Thornton said that a lot of the programs that CACCI operates already exist on the Island, but are run through the county. Establishing a social worker position provides a way for the group to be active on Martha’s Vineyard.

Ms. Thornton said she would like to see local people fill the positions. The CACCI-funded position is posted, and several applications have been received. She expects to conduct interviews next week.

She said that the HAC position is the product of two years of effort. She credits Rep. Madden for getting the initiative through the legislature.

“It was vetoed by the governor, and then it was overridden,” she said.

Defining the problem

In understanding the homeless population, Ms. Thornton says a major issue is the difference between what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considers a homeless individual, and what the reality of the situation is. The federal category is extremely narrow, she said.

“We have a very hard time finding these people and fitting them into the category,” Ms. Thornton said.

HUD utilizes a point-in-time (PIT) count methodology that must be completed accurately in order to qualify for federal funds. It provides definitions for sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals.

An Island count of homeless conducted last winter turned up only 15 people who fit the government’s definition of homelessness. Ms. Thornton discovered that the assistance Island community members provide one another, offering a couch to sleep on for a night, for example, disqualifies individuals from being considered homeless.

For example, for a sheltered individual to count as homeless, that person must live in a supervised shelter “designated to provide temporary living arrangements.” Unsheltered homeless individuals must have “a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

HUD provides a number of situations that would disqualify a person from being considered homeless. Such instances include people staying temporarily with family or friends, staying in projects with beds/units not dedicated for people who are homeless, and those residing in institutions such as jails, foster care, hospital beds, and detox centers. An individual is also disqualified if he or she resides in a permanent housing program, “including persons housed using HUD Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers.”

Ms. Thornton said that she handless homelessness situationally. She declined to offer a definition, but said she more broadly considers those who do not have a place to go to be homeless. She referenced situations where a person doesn’t have an income or makes so little that they can’t even apply for affordable housing. Because of the fluidity of defining who is actually without a home, Ms. Thornton declined to give an estimate of how large the homeless population on the Island might be.

Emergency housing funds

Until January of this year, the county’s volunteer associate commissioner of homelessness, Connie Teixeira, acted as liaison between those who needed emergency housing and the limited cash assistance available from Dukes County. Ms. Teixeira retired in January.

“We just ran the ad again, but nobody came forward,” Ms. Thornton said.

The commissioner, according to the Dukes County website, “acts as an advisor to the Island agencies that help homeless people and supports activities to end homelessness on Martha’s Vineyard, including budgeting, fund raising, and forming a committee for this purpose.”

Ms. Thornton said that the commissioner has access to $1,000 in emergency housing assistance funds. For the time being, Ms. Thornton will oversee those funds.

“I’m really saving it for the winter, for when it’s really cold out, because if you have to pay $100 for a night in a hotel, that’s 10 nights,” she said. “So that helps one person for 10 nights or a couple people for a few nights. I’m really restrictive about when I’ll be allowing people to tap into it. What we’re addressing more than anything is that no one freezes out in the middle of the night.”