A recent homelessness survey at the Oak Bluffs School has given a voice to often overlooked victims of the Island’s housing crisis — children.
Karen Tewhey, the Dukes County associate commissioner for homelessness, worked with students from the Oak Bluffs School on the Island housing crisis and how it impacted them.
Much of Tewhey’s work has been understanding the scope of homelessness on the Island, but now she is working to understand the impact. Students from Eve Hayman’s class learned about homelessness on the Island through service learning, learning that combines academic study with community service.
Students Hannah Murphy, and Penelope Long, both 14, who are both headed to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School next year, helped put the survey together and disperse it to their peers.
“This project was important to me because I hadn’t realized what an issue housing was on the Island, so when I found out, I wanted to do something to help,” Hannah said.
Penelope agreed, and said she was shocked to learn one of her 13-year-old peers had moved nine times. “I really wanted to know how it affected students’ lives, and when we went through the survey responses, we were really upset to know that this is happening to the people around us, and we were blinded to it and didn’t know.” Penelope said.
Tewhey told The Times many students allowed their comments to be shared, but some of the students who made especially poignant comments did not give permission: “This is interesting because it’s talking about what’s the impact of the problem, and that’s sort of the next step, and I think the fact that it has an impact on children is significant.”
One hundred forty-seven students from the Oak Bluffs school’s fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes participated in the survey. Over 75 percent of the students said they have lived on the Island for 10 or more years with their families. Others had lived on the Island for as short a time as a few months, or as long as several years.
Of the 147 responses, 27 percent of the students said their families struggled to find housing on the Island. In the comment portion of the survey, one student said “I lived in a cold basement.” Another said, “Out of my 13 years that I lived on this Island, I had to move more than eight times, so it was interfering with my school life.” A third said, “I was stressed to not have a home, and the house we were currently in was very small and not even fixed properly.”
Tewhey said about half of the students’ parents owned their home, while the others rented. Of those rentals, half had significant issues finding housing.
44 percent of students said they lost a friend who had to move away because their parents or guardians could not find housing.
“It was the worst day of my life, and I was crying for three days,” one student said when a friend had to move.
“I had a really good friend that I was sad to see her move away, and I felt bad for her and her family that they were not in a happy place on MV,” a student said.
Students wrote a list of emotions they felt because of housing issues, ranging from sadness to anger. One student said, “It hurt my self-esteem.”
Fifteen percent of the students said they had to move out of their home for the summer, which affected their lives at transitional times during school. Many said it was stressful. “I had to pack, and I didn’t have a stable home for a while,” said a student.
“It made me a bit upset and sick of moving around. Every summer, my family has to find somewhere to live instead of our winter home, due to people who come to the Island for two weeks a year and buy out a house they never use,” another said.
Another portion of the survey asked students if they wanted to add other comments. Most thanked the students who helped put the survey together and hoped for a solution to the housing crisis. Students also said how stressful a lack of stable housing was for them and their families, and that it negatively affected home and school life.
“Every time we move out of our winter rentals in the summer, we have to find a family friend, or a family member, to stay with. Then, when summer is over and we move back into the rental, the new rental has a higher rent than the old one, which causes my family to have money issues. This Island really needs to build more year-round housing for people WHO ACTUALLY LIVE HERE YEAR-ROUND,” one student said.
Students’ families often camp, live with family or friends, or in illegal situations during the summer until they can go back to their winter rental. Tewhey gets about 100 referrals a year from people who have lost their rental housing and have no place to live.
“As far as homelessness on the Island, I think it’s not very visible; people assume it’s the handful of people living in the woods,” Tewhey said. “The winter rentals are seven months, they’re October to May … five months of the year the kids are in insecure housing, they’re basically homeless by HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) standards.”
She added that the Island needs another 1,000 rentals to meet the population’s needs.
“We have a pretty good understanding of the scope of the problem,” Tewhey said. “But I think now we need to talk about the impact.”