Three Island churches open doors to homeless

Grace Church and the Federated Church have joined St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in offering shelter to Island homeless this winter.

The Federated Church has joined St. Andrew's and Grace Church as a temporary winter homeless shelter. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

From Jan. 1 to March 31, three Island churches will open their doors on a rotating basis to any individual in need of a warm place to stay, seven nights a week, between 7 pm and 7 am. Men, women, and families are welcome to use the shelter, whether they are chronically homeless, out of heating fuel, or need a place for just a night or two. Bedding, dinner, and breakfast will be provided.

The initiative is called Hospitality Homes. It was spearheaded last spring by the Rev. Vincent “Chip” Seadale, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, and is sponsored by the Island Clergy Association (ICA). Hospitality Homes will be staffed by volunteers from nearly 14 Island religious organizations.

The Federated Church will host the shelter on Mondays and Thursdays; Grace Church will host on Fridays; St. Andrew’s will host on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

As recently as October, St. Andrew’s was the only church both willing and able to open its doors to those in need on the Island. Other churches faced problems with freeing up space amid a busy programming docket. However, the Federated Church and Grace Church stepped forward in November, making Hospitality Homes possible.

“There had always been interest on the part of the Federated Church in being involved, but we were in the middle of a transition,” the Rev. Amy Edwards of the Federated Church said in a phone conversation with The Times. “As a new pastor there’s so much, just trying to figure out the Island itself. Some people were feeling that Hospitality Homes was a big project for us to enter into in the middle of transition.”

The Rev. Edwards became pastor of the Federated Church in August, the first female pastor in the church’s 373-year history.

“Obviously, everyone understands that there’s a need for us to open our doors to people who don’t have homes,” she said. “It was just a question of will we be able to do it, and how will we be able to do it.” The church’s council ultimately voted to join Hospitality Homes, and Grace Church did the same shortly thereafter.

‘Looking really good’

The shelter idea was first proposed in March. Informational meetings began this summer. Volunteer training has been running for over a month to prepare volunteers for the shelter program.

“It’s looking really good,” the Rev. Seadale said in a phone conversation with The Times on Tuesday.

Nearly 75 volunteers have participated in mandatory training, and nearly 150 people from various Island-based faith groups have expressed interest in getting involved, the Rev. Seadale said. Volunteer shifts will run from 6:30 pm to 10 pm and from 10 pm to 7 am, and will include serving dinner and breakfast, respectively. Doors will be locked at 8 pm on any given night; if no one is there, volunteers will shut down for the day.

The seven Island churches that host free community suppers during the same time period will provide dinners to the shelter sites each night. Each site will also store dry breakfast goods, though the Rev. Seadale said that the shelter organizers are attempting to coordinate supplies from the Greater Boston Food Bank. Dinner will be served no later than 7:30.

The Rev. Seadale said he’s optimistic about the pilot program, and hopes that it will allow the community to begin to understand who makes up the homeless population on the Island and to define how great the need is. That being said, he is unsure what the turnout will look like during this first season, but said he hopes that volunteers will see that they are needed.

Partial solution

The church-sanctioned shelter is an outgrowth of what has been an Island effort to define the homeless population on the Vineyard. Past attempts by Dukes County Manager Martina Thornton to count the number of homeless on the Island have fallen short, in part due to weather and narrow state definitions of who can be considered homeless. The clergy’s shelter circumvents the need to satisfy state definitions.

Thus far, estimates of how many homeless there are on the VIneyard have ranged from zero to well over 100 individuals, depending on the definitions and the use of nonconventional criteria, such as instances of “couch surfing.”

Federal definitions from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are narrow, and are those the county must use when applying for funding. HUD considers anyone “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” to be homeless. It does not count anyone who has recently stayed at a shelter or at a friend’s house.

In October, a group of graduate students from the University of Massachusetts Medical School Rural Scholars program, commissioned by Dukes County, came to the Island to conduct a study on the homeless population. They used HUD definitions of homelessness. The students were second-year medical and nurse-practitioner students who periodically come to Martha’s Vineyard to study an array of social issues. They presented their findings after nearly 10 days of interviewing Island residents who interact with the homeless, and largely pinned the problem on Island exclusivity. They were skeptical about how serious Islanders are about finding a solution, given the high percentage of interview subjects who said they believed that people who can’t afford to live here should simply live elsewhere.

The scholars were also 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. This survey will be run out of Dukes County to help Ms. Thornton prepare for another count of Island homeless. However, those numbers won’t be available until the survey has been implemented over a significant amount of time, including through the winter.