Homelessness strikes 64 Martha’s Vineyard residents this year

New coalition plans short- and long-term fixes.

Housing counselor Karen Tewhey in her office at 346 State Road. —Sam Moore

A new consortium of homeless advocates has found that so far this year at least 64 people on the Island, including 16 families, have been homeless.

Interview-based research with homeless residents by the Island advisory group to the Homeless Assistance Corp. (HAC), a Hyannis-based nonprofit, found that 90 percent of the homeless are Island residents with roots in the community. The new findings, compiled between January and October, put a detailed face on the homeless here.

Who the homeless are

“The homeless can absolutely be you and me,” Karen Tewhey, Island-based HAC counselor told The Times this week. “I’ve been able to collect data on the numbers and the reasons why people are homeless. It’s a crisis situation, a spinoff of the housing crisis, in which a dwindling and limited housing supply meets consistent demand by the workforce for rental housing.”

“It’s a safe assumption that half are employed, mostly in labor, service, and food industries,” Ms. Tewhey said. “I would say 58 of the 64 are long-term island residents.”

She estimated that about a third of the homeless receive Social Security or Social Security Disability benefits. She said the numbers do not include people on the “Island shuffle” (those who move often due to seasonal housing availability), those who are “couch surfing” or who double up for housing, or “a handful of individuals who were at shelters last winter but have since left for the mainland.”

The homeless group includes 30 men and 34 women and children. “The majority of the homeless are between 50 and 82 years of age, and are rooted in the community,” said Ms. Tewhey. “We don’t have 50-year-olds coming here with no resources to sleep in the woods.”

About a third of the homeless have mental illness, substance abuse, or domestic violence issues that likely contributed to their homeless status, the researchers found.

Ms. Tewhey has spent her career in homeless advocacy, holding management positions in state agencies and nonprofits. HAC is a 40-year-old nonprofit that is expanding its efforts to the Island. According to its website, “while HAC has long offered housing services to Martha’s Vineyard residents, we now offer direct on-island support, making it easier for you to get the housing support you need.”

A new advisory group

The three-month-old Island HAC advisory group facilitated by Ms. Tewhey includes individuals and businessmen, and representatives from organizations with long experience in housing issues. The members are the All-Island Clergy Association, a group which opened two churches to the homeless last winter; the Island Housing Trust (IHT); the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA); Dukes County manager Martina Thornton; Dukes County associate commissioner on the homeless Dean Rosenthal; caseworker Esther Laiacona; businessmen Les Holcomb and Peter Vincent,; and the United Way of the Cape and Islands in Hyannis.

Their plans include pending applications for $110,000 in state and federal short-term grants to provide shelter this winter and for the next fiscal year, and the group is also pursuing a longer-term idea to provide transitional shelter for the chronically homeless and for individuals and families who become homeless unexpectedly, providing shelter while they seek permanent housing.

“At the present time,” said Ms. Tewhey, “we don’t have specific purchase or lease plans. We are working to develop a budget, and several people are developing fundraising strategies to enable us to lease or purchase transitional housing.”

“Right now, we’ve applied for federal HUD grants for $40,000 through the Cape and Islands Regional Network to End Homelessness,” she said, “and we’ve made two proposals to United Way of the Cape and Islands, requesting $20,000 for this winter and $50,000 for the next fiscal year.”

The advisory group meets monthly at the DCRHA office on State Road in Vineyard Haven. Ms Tewhey, an Island resident, has been HAC’s point person on the Island since January.

“[The Island advisory group] is a brand-new group,” Ms. Tewhey told the Times last week, “convened to help develop a strategic plan to address homeless people or those in danger of becoming homeless. What I’m finding is a couple of disturbing indicators of [people] of all incomes who are unable to find rental housing or are found living in situations that HUD qualifies as substandard.”

Designing a plan

“We’re designing a permanent transitional housing plan for all residents of the island, the people who live here, often for decades,” she continued, “and the litmus-test question is: Where would I be better off? People who come here for a summer job and want to stay, and find themselves homeless in October and don’t have housing or a support network here, have other options. They would probably be better served moving off-Island where they can find jobs and housing.”

Tewhey defines people with “roots” here as people who were raised here, or got married here or are employed here. They have a network and services. They would not be better served moving off-Island with no resources. The majority of people she deals with could live appropriately in the community, and many are eager to do that.

“The advisory group is planning with economies of scale in mind,” she said. “In terms of economy of scale, I think residents with mental health issues can be served here; the resources are adequate. But residents with substance abuse issues and complex histories would be better served off-Island. Expensive programs requiring specialists are a small need on the Island. But they are not the majority need.”

Ms. Tewhey said the Island housing conundrum is unique. “Our situation is unheard-of on the mainland, where you may have to commute farther, pay more for rundown rentals, but people are not facing living in an unheated facility without water or a shower,” she said.

A new study

Ms. Thornton, the Dukes County manager, pointed to a 2015 study by a University of Massachusetts Rural Scholars group that found while there are more residences than people here, more than 40 percent are not occupied year-round, and only 5.2 percent of residences qualify as affordable.

Advisory group members this week said they were buoyed by progress to date, several noting that pending HUD grants would be a first for homeless relief, though the federal agency does support elderly housing here.

“This is exciting,” Ms. Thornton said, agreeing that the homelessness issue has changed rapidly in recent years. “We are identifying priorities and coming together as a group. Connie Teixeira [a retired county homeless advocate] was a one-man show, working hard, interacting with the homeless, the churches, and raising rent money to house people. After Connie retired [in 2014], the churches really stepped up,” she said.

Dean Rosenthal, the volunteer associate Dukes County homeless commissioner, noted that the (federally mandated) one-day Island homeless count in January identified 14 homeless individuals and family members. He noted that in addition to four rent-voucher awards and one winner of an affordable-housing rental lottery, Hospitality Homes provided winter shelter for 22 individuals — 18 men and four women — between January and March. The one-day count identified a much higher percentage of mental illness and substance abuse than the yearlong study shows.

DCRHA executive director David Vigneault has noted the collegial and galvanizing nature of the advisory group’s work, and efforts by State Representative Tim Madden and State Senator Dan Wolf and off-Island groups like HAC and United Way to participate.

“The Rural Scholars report found homelessness to be the tip of the iceberg,” said Vigneault. “Housing is the issue. But with regard to the homeless, we now have concrete numbers and leadership from people who know what to do with them.”