UMass study pins Martha’s Vineyard homelessness on housing crisis and Island exclusivity

Dukes County Health Council member Paddy Moore flanked by three members of the Rural Scholars program.

At a standing-room-only presentation at the West Tisbury library last Thursday night, eight University of Massachusetts Medical School Rural Scholars presented the findings of a 10-day study on Island homelessness the group had finished the week prior. The study defined homelessness in accordance with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) definitions, which include any person “with 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.”

The panel was blunt in its findings. At the presentation, they questioned how serious Islanders really are about addressing homelessness, given the high percentage of respondents who said they believed that people who can’t afford to live here should simply live elsewhere. Less surprisingly, the study also concluded that efforts to create affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard must be redoubled in order to significantly impact the problem.

University of Massachusetts Medical School Rural Scholars are second-year medical and nurse practitioner students who periodically come to Martha’s Vineyard to study an array of social issues.

This fall, the Dukes County Health Council enlisted the group to investigate the scope of homelessness on the Island. The group was tasked with designing a survey that could be used to measure homelessness as reported by police, nonprofits, emergency medical service personnel, and other organizations that encounter the homeless. The survey was intended to address difficulties county manager Martina Thornton has encountered in conducting an accurate point-in-time (PIT) count to quantify the homeless population, which is a necessary step to receive funding from HUD. The HUD definitions of homelessness are narrow. For example, by HUD standards, anyone who “couch surfs” is not considered homeless. And because even homeless who may qualify by HUD standards can be difficult to locate in a rural area, Ms. Thornton has requested that the scholars devise a survey that could be used year-round to better prepare for another PIT count.

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

Who deserves to live on-Island?

At the presentation, the Rural Scholars described a divide among the Island population about how to approach homelessness. One slide showed an illustration of two figures facing off against each other. One figure says, “Even if there is just one person needing shelter, that is one too many to not have a place to send them.” The other says, “It’s Martha’s Vineyard. How many services do you really want here?”

The students said statements such as these were repeated to them many times throughout their study. The common ground, they said, was the oft-repeated phrase “If you build it, they will come.” But the students said that this phrase meant two different things: For some, it meant that the homeless population could not be identified until they had a common gathering place to go to; for others, it meant that a homeless shelter would attract homeless people to the Island.

“So, does everyone have a right to live here? And what happens if the answer is no?” asked student Richard Gallagher. The audience shifted in their seats; some gasped.

Mr. Gallagher said that if money dictates a person’s right to live on Martha’s Vineyard, then the community risks losing blue-collar workers and teachers.

The presentation also highlighted what students said was the pervasive idea that the Portuguese-speaking population “take care of their own,” implying that the English-speaking population did not have to worry about the extent to which homelessness and affordable housing affected minority groups.

“Our group’s opinion is that you guys are all in the same boat,” Mr. Gallagher said.

Elephant in the room

The students said that the link between homelessness on the Island and the lack of affordable housing was the elephant in the room during the discussion, and they addressed it head-on.

They reported that the median income for a family of four on Martha’s Vineyard is $87,400 a year. They said the bulk of people who are looking for affordable housing make less than 60 percent of that figure. Further, the affordable housing that is available falls within the price range of those making 30-80 percent of the median income. They reported that there is a significant gap in affordable housing for those making up to 30 percent of the Island’s median income for a family of four.

According to a 2008 survey issued by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) and presented in a slide Thursday night, the year-round population is 16,460. There are also 16,973 housing units on the Island at the time of the survey, more than enough for each individual to have his or her own home. However, out of those housing units, only 43 percent were year-round residences. And only 5.2 percent of those year-round units were considered affordable.

Solutions

At the end of the presentation, the students presented what they referred to as “central” solutions and “peripheral” solutions. Central solutions, they said, could be helpful in the short term. Peripheral solutions would require more research, and they did not feel they could vouch for their efficacy on the Island.

Central solutions presented included forming a homelessness coalition, creating scattered-site transitional housing and mixed-income rental housing, collaboration with groups on Cape Cod, a landlord roundtable, and supporting a state proposal that would extend housing court districts.

Scattered-site transitional housing would function essentially as a dormitory for those desperately in need of housing, and ideally a caseworker would act as a functional residential assistant to the home. Already, there are respite homes on the Island. In these cases, homeowners agree to take in people or teens in need of a temporary place to stay, when their own homes are volatile or unsafe. The students also encouraged mixed-income rental housing to promote economic diversity, and highlighted the Morgan Woods housing complex as a positive example of this model working on the Island already. Additionally, students suggested a landlord roundtable to address both landlord and tenant concerns, which they said was already taking place on the Cape.

As far as housing court districts are concerned, students said that though the state’s housing courts have jurisdiction over two-thirds of the state, they do not have jurisdiction on the Cape and islands, which can clog the local court dockets with housing and landlord/tenant disputes. There is current legislation in the State House to extend these districts, and the students suggested that residents call up their representatives in support of the expansion.

Peripheral solutions included ideas such tiny houses, relocatable homes, and houseboats.

Values gap

A question and answer session was moderated by Dukes County Health Council member Paddy Moore. Discussion veered toward what some referred to as unfounded resistance and bigotry toward affordable housing developments.

“I think a lot of people think of affordable housing as these tall, cement slabs, ’60s Soviet-style buildings, and we don’t want them here. But that’s not true,” said student Rebecca Kasper. She said that the community could utilize architects willing to design attractive “Vineyard-style” houses, such as Morgan Woods.

As for who is tackling homelessness right now, student Jessica Fortin said that the community needed to lift part of the burden off the clergy, who are working to open a temporary emergency shelter in their own buildings come January.

“The clergy are taking on the bulk … Right now they are really holding up the homeless,” she said.

“I keep telling people I’m going ground-up,” said the Rev. Vincent “Chip” Seadale, the rector at St. Andrew’s Church in Edgartown. “If someone needs a place to stay and it’s 10° out, they need a place. I don’t care. Everyone else can’t get the job done. They’re going to have a warm place so that tomorrow morning I can wake up and look myself in the mirror and say, ‘I know that person is not suffering.’ … Unless we decide we want to get this thing done, we’re going to continue to circle around these questions that we know are out there.”

Ms. Fortin said that a number of people told students during the study that they came to the Island to retire, and therefore didn’t want to be surrounded by unseemly affordable housing. She said one person referred to individuals who receive a lot of welfare assistance on the Island and then “complain about affordable housing” as “wretched ingrates.”

“It’s really a values gap,” she said.

Student Rebecca Kasper told the audience at one point that the Massachusetts Department of Education requires the high school to report all known instances of homelessness in its student body. The student definition is wider, and counts couch surfers as homeless. The latest count reported 12 homeless high school students on Martha’s Vineyard.

The current homelessness coalition is made up of Ms. Moore, Ms. Thornton, the Island Clergy Association, director of Vineyard Health Care Access Sarah Kuh, and Martha’s Vineyard Community Services director Julie Fay.