Karen Tewhey: ‘I could’ve been that person needing a hand’

Preventing homelessness on the Island, one person at a time. 

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Karen Tewhey, associate commissioner for homeless prevention, is president of Harbor Homes Martha's Vineyard.

Karen Tewhey, associate commissioner for homeless prevention in Dukes County, has worked with vulnerable populations most of her adult life; much of her career was in developing and administering educational programs for at-risk children at the regional and state level. “That included children with special needs, those with English as a second language, children from low-income or migrant families,” she explained during a recent conversation at the county administration offices. This also meant that she worked with individuals and families who were homeless.

Tewhey moved full-time to Martha’s Vineyard in 2015 after spending summers here for years, and was hired in January 2016 as a homeless prevention counselor through Housing Assistance Corp., based on Cape Cod. When that funding dried up, county manager Martina Thornton used county and United Way funds to continue the position part-time. 

Tewhey went on to chair the Martha’s Vineyard Network for Homeless Prevention, which meets quarterly. The network is made up of vested community organizations like the Edgartown Council on Aging, the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority, Island Clergy Association, and others. The Harbor Homes Steering Committee is a subcommittee of the network, devoted to finding permanent congregate housing for Island adults that would also offer a life-skills component. They identified the need to purchase housing for very-low-income individuals who were too poor for affordable housing on the Island. And finally, Tewhey said, it looks like the dream of finding a structure to house the initiative is becoming a reality.

“I’m incredibly enthused about Harbor Homes,” Tewhey said. “It fills a critical gap, and it’s going to provide congregate housing for individuals who are homeless and have limited incomes.”

A purchase and sale agreement was signed in mid-December on a house in Vineyard Haven, which will provide space for six adults. The sale should close in January 2020, Tewhey said. The purchase is a result of a collaborative effort with Island clergy, who have spearheaded homeless prevention projects, the Island Housing Trust, and others.

“They’ll each have their own room and share a kitchen, bathrooms, and common space,” Tewhey said. “From here, we’ll be looking for the next project. We’re concerned about families and children.”

State senator Julian Cyr, D-Truro, recently secured $200,000 in state funding for housing and homeless initiatives on the Vineyard. One-quarter of the funds will go to Dukes County, to serve homeless and housing-insecure residents and the hire or contract for a homeless prevention case manager. The remaining funds will go to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to conduct a housing and homelessness study for the whole Island. It looks like awareness of the housing crisis on the Island is taking hold.

For Tewhey, her part-time position is one that comes with far from part-time hours. She spends around 40 hours a week working on homeless prevention in one way or another, and she’s available on weekends when there’s a critical need. When she describes her work, it sounds much more like a 24/7 job. I asked her why she likes the work.

“Martha’s Vineyard is an incredibly beautiful and unique community,” she says. “I had no awareness that there was a population of people living here year-round who are vital to our economy, who appreciate raising their children in a very safe and supportive community, who love the Vineyard, and are trying to survive here in sometimes Third World conditions, substandard situations.” 

Tewhey is one of eight children, and said she’s very aware that everyone is unique and has different strengths and skills, and if you’re blessed with so much, you’re aware that you should give back.

“There but for the grace of God go I,” she said. “I could’ve been that person needing a hand.”