UMass students present results of Island homelessness study

Photo by Michael Cummo

A group of eight students from the University of Massachusetts Medical School Rural Health Scholars program are expected to present the results of a 10-day study on Island homelessness Thursday at the West Tisbury library. The group of second-year medical and nurse practitioner students periodically comes to Martha’s Vineyard to study an array of social issues.

The Dukes County Health Council asked the group to help Island organizations better understand homelessness. The group will make recommendations and present a survey form that can be used to log instances of homelessness as reported by police, nonprofits, emergency medical service personnel, and other organizations that encounter the homeless.

Last winter, Dukes County manager Martina Thornton tried to organize a point-in-time (PIT) count of Island homeless, a necessary step to get funding from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The survey turned up 15 people who fit the state’s definition of homelessness. Ms. Thornton said that finding homeless individuals and fitting them into the narrow state definitions was difficult. The year-round survey constructed by the UMass students is intended to help the county prepare to complete the PIT count more accurately, by providing a more complete image of what homelessness on the Island actually looks like.

The students, working in pairs, interviewed nearly 40 individuals who interact with the homeless on the Island about their experiences and perception of the homeless population, said student Rebecca Kasper.

Ms. Kasper said many of those interviewed referenced the uniqueness of the Island and the need for a solution that takes that into account. “Which I think is true in some ways and not in others,” she said. “This isn’t the only place in the world that’s an island and also has homelessness. I don’t think it’s necessary to reinvent the wheel.”

Students asked each interview subject to define homeless, and then to compare his or her own definition with the state government’s limited definition. “We kind of hold up a mirror, so to speak, to the County Health Council and to the Island community at large.… Our biggest goal is to hold up that mirror, to do the groundwork to get the ideas out in the open,” she said.

The students will present their findings and recommendations at the West Tisbury library at 4:30 pm on Thursday.