Church shelter program provides perspective on Island homelessness

After its first season in operation, the Rev. Vincent “Chip” Seadale said Hospitality Homes was a success.

St. Andrew's in Edgartown opened its doors as a temporary homeless shelter this winter. — Photo by Monica Busch

This winter, the Island Clergy Association (ICA) began a homeless shelter program it dubbed Hospitality Homes, run out of two Edgartown churches. The program drew from a staff of 120 trained volunteers on a rotating schedule overseen by four weekly coordinators. The shelter program housed approximately 25 people between Jan. 1 and March 31 in its pilot season.

The Rev. Vincent “Chip” Seadale, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and the shelter’s unofficial leader, told The Times last week that, given a scale of 1 to 10, he would rate the program an 11.

“It really brought a lot of people in the community together who are aware of and want to help this situation,” the Rev. Seadale said. “It also brought them together with the people they were helping.”

St. Andrew’s opened its doors as a shelter five days of the week. The Federated Church provided coverage the other two days. Grace Church in Vineyard Haven was expected to be a host site, but due to problems with the building’s heating system, that location proved unusable. The Rev. Seadale said work is already beginning on next year’s program.

Homelessness on the Vineyard is often tricky to describe, due to the seasonality of jobs and housing that defines resort communities. County officials, clergy, and nonprofit groups alike all struggle to respond to requests for a succinct and precise definition of what it means to be homeless on the Island.

Hospitality Homes provided an opportunity for those in the community who do social service work to get a clearer picture of one type of homelessness. The Rev. Seadale described most of the patrons as younger, under 40 years old; and many struggled with addiction, joblessness, or issues with the families they used to live with. About one-third were women. Six to eight patrons stayed regularly.

“To be frank, everyone is clearly aware that this is really only one manifestation of homelessness that we’re seeing. We know that there are still people out there in sheds and cars, and teens who don’t have places to stay on a consistent or permanent basis. I think we’re mostly seeing people who are really down and out for whatever reason, and can make use of this for whatever reason,” the Rev. Seadale said. “What we’re addressing, really, is one subsegment of a much larger population.”

Les Holcomb of Edgartown was one of the coordinators this winter. Mr. Holcomb, now retired, worked in public health for decades. In an email to The Times, he said his primary concern during his work with Hospitality Homes was to “decrease the number of adult deaths on the Island due to hypothermia,” which he has said is the ultimate goal in bringing people inside during low temperatures.

“What I learned right away, when the first guests started coming in, is that the most vulnerable of Islanders without shelter are not ‘from Mars and Venus, but the Vineyard’: born and/or raised from an early age on the Island,” Mr. Holcomb said. “Most of our guests had little or no connection with any human service agency located on the Vineyard, even though they have two or more major medical conditions, and had fallen through the cracks after getting through high school.”

Mr. Holcomb credited the devotion that volunteers had for one another and toward patrons, and the sense of respect that all involved parties exemplified. Without these attitudes, he said, the program wouldn’t have worked.

“Near the end I told my Hospitality Homes colleagues that I think we succeeded because no one told us when we recruited that what we had to do was ‘impossible.’ So we just went ahead and made it happen,” Mr. Holcomb said.

The Rev. Seadale maintains the attitude he has had from the onset of planning last year. Unlike government officials, churches are able to work on the issue from the ground up. Faith groups don’t have to navigate an obstacle course of red tape to take actions that affect social change.

“We started with the same premise we finished with, and will continue with in this particular program, and that’s that there just needs to be a place on the Island whose doors are open every night for someone who needs it — period,” he said.

The experience of working with homeless individuals in the community was an eye-opening experience for some volunteers who might otherwise not have interacted with them.

“It changed their attitudes a lot about the people who needed the service,” the Rev. Seadale said of the volunteers. “And also, it felt like they could do this, that they could actually help in a tangible way, instead of throwing money at a problem and not really getting to know anyone.”

The Rev. Seadale said people tend to approach the issue with preconceived notions of who the homeless population are and how they came to be homeless.

“Most people out there put ‘homeless people’ in some sort of box in their minds,” he said. “Many of them have, you know, stereotypes of people who we might call homeless as being drunks, addicts, losers, mentally ill: people who for good reason, most of society doesn’t associate with. I think what people found was they were real people and there were real problems, and many of those problems are manifest in almost all of our families.”

The Rev. Seadale said he and other organizers expect the program will continue to grow.

Looking forward

With the shelters closed and temperatures rising, organizers already have next winter in mind. Peter Vincent, Dory Godfrey, Melissa St. John, and Maria Lendt have already signed up as coordinators, charged with managing the program on a weekly basis.

Hospitality Homes leadership sent out a survey to the volunteers in search of feedback to be used to make improvements to the program. The Rev. Seadale said that the survey elicited a lot of suggestions.

These included addressing a level of drunkenness that is acceptable from shelter guests. Hospitality Homes is a “wet” shelter, meaning that volunteers do not turn away people who are intoxicated.

“The thing is, we got to know personally some of those who returned, so they kind of knew where some of our boundaries might be, and they consistently tested those,” the Rev. Seadale said.

More than once, volunteers were forced to call police, who placed guests into protective custody.

“Then they would show up again the next night and the night after that, and kind of be a little chastened, and knew what they needed to do to remain in good graces with everyone,” the Rev. Seadale said. But lines need to be drawn to ensure the physical and emotional safety of the volunteers, he said.

In addition to more clearly defined rules about intoxication, organizers are also looking into emergency medical technology, such as investing in a defibrillator that would be moved around from site to site, and also having volunteers trained in administering Narcan, a drug used to counter the effects of a heroin overdose.

“I know at least a couple of us have taken the training for that, and we’ll probably have a few more,” he said. “We now know that it’s available on the Island, and there are something like 30,000 people in Massachusetts who are trained to administer it.”

Shelter organizers will also be looking for additional host sites to join the rotation, ideally outside Edgartown. Traveling to Edgartown can pose a burden for those who desire shelter services, and when the only two options are in one place, those in need may be limited in their ability to get through the doors before they are closed at 7 pm.

“I don’t know that we’ll have much luck with that, but we will continue to ask,” the Rev. Seadale said.

During one of this winter’s storms, an Oak Bluffs police officer picked up two men on the side of the road who were trying to get to the shelter. The Rev. Seadale hopes that congregation members from churches around the Island will approach their leadership and ask to be active shelter sites next year.

“I think we’ve all resolved that this is a program that really fits a gap and a need on the Island,” he said. “So many people have personal friends, acquaintances, family members, either here or elsewhere, where they’ve had situations where they’ve been unhoused for periods.”

Come January, he said, “We’ll be back.”