Martha’s Vineyard church homeless shelters find few takers

Four weeks in, St. Andrew’s and the Federated Church are trying to get the word out that space is available.

The Federated Church in Edgartown is one of two churches in Edgartown operating as a temporary homeless shelter during winter nights. - File photo by Ralph Stewart.

This month, the Island Clergy Association (ICA) began a pilot homeless shelter program dubbed “Hospitality Homes,” that began operating January 1 and will continue during winter nights until March. Program leaders said the shelter program is off to a slow but steady start.

During the first week and a half of the program no one turned up to seek shelter, but Rev. Vincent “Chip” Seadale, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, the unofficial leader of the project, said that as many as three men have been taking advantage of a warm place to stay every night since then. So far, no women or families have used the service.

Currently, the shelter runs out of St. Andrew’s and the Federated Church in Edgartown. Grace Church in Vineyard Haven had intended to be in the rotation, but is currently working to meet fire safety regulations, Rev. Seadale told The Times in a phone conversation on Monday.

Nearly 120 volunteers have been trained to participate as shelter operators on any given night. Volunteer shifts run from 6:30 pm to 10 pm and from 10 pm to 7 am, and include serving dinner and breakfast. Doors are locked at 8 pm; if no one is there, volunteers shut down for the day.

Nights have been going smoothly, Rev. Seadale said. Shelter organizers opted to have Hospitality Homes be a “wet” shelter, i.e. a shelter that does not turn away intoxicated guests, but unruliness or intoxication have not been an issue in the four weeks that the program has been in operation.

One challenge the leaders of Hospitality Homes are facing is marketing: those who may benefit most from the shelters may also be difficult to reach. Alternatively, some chronically homeless people are content in their current living situations, Rev. Seadale said.

“We’re also finding that there’s a subset of the unhoused population that are perhaps a little more chronically unhoused, who have, for whatever reason, found a way to live under the radar and they’re happy in their situation… That’s something we knew would happen,” Rev. Seadale said.

Word of mouth may prove to be the most effective marketing tool.

Information about Hospitality Homes has been circulated on social media, in local publications, and generally promulgated by religious groups on the Island.

“I think it’s like anything else on the Island in terms of a service. It’s very hard to get the word out to the people that need it. It’s going to be a matter of time. I think when we started the whole process we knew we’d open the 91 days… And do it again next year to see, you know, where we stand,” Rev. Seadale said.

Rev. Seadale said that despite the low turnout, volunteers remain steadfast in their belief that they are filling a service gap in the community. He anticipates participation will continue to fluctuate. “I expect there will be nights between now and the end of March where we will have nobody attend,” he said.

The church-sanctioned shelter is an outgrowth of what has been an Islandwide 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 unconventional criteria, such as instances of “couch surfing.”

Tackling transportation

The snowstorm last weekend magnified other issues the shelter organizations are facing: during inclement weather, it can be even more difficult for those who would take advantage of the service to travel to Edgartown. Rev. Seadale said that during the storm on Saturday, an Oak Bluffs police officer picked up two men who were trying to get to the shelter, but were walking on the side of the road. The officer brought them to the church to stay for the night.

“The problem became no one would be able get around,” Rev. Seadale said.

Similarly, shelter organizers are exploring options to provide weekly free showers to homeless individuals who may not have another opportunity to bathe. One potential location is the YMCA, but this poses a similar transportation challenge. Rev. Seadale said that he and other organizers are in the middle of conversations with the Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) to see if services could be arranged, but he is unsure how that would ultimately play out.

Rethinking families

Hospitality Homes advertisements say that anyone is welcome, including both individuals and families. However, Rev. Seadale said that the shelter may not be appropriate for families because of gender segregation in both locations. That could be further complicated if a parent were to come to the shelter with a child of the opposite sex.

Space is limited, Rev. Seadale said, and especially so at the Federated Church. “There’s only so much space. We have to make sure that the men and women are separated,” he said.

There is another wrinkle. Members of the clergy, medical professional, and law enforcement are all mandatory reporters who must report suspected child abuse or neglect. While being in a shelter for a night or at all doesn’t necessarily mean a parent is neglectful or abusive, fear of that perception could prevent parents from taking the risk.

“We try to make sure that volunteers helping out know that if someone with young children shows up, it probably isn’t appropriate to house them, although we would for the evening if they want us to. We want the volunteers to know to notify the clergy so we can help them in some other way,” Rev. Seadale said.