To the Editor:
Martha’s Vineyard does not have an emergency response plan that includes housing the homeless. There is no outreach system to residents who are unhoused, no plan to get them to a safe place, provide food, showers and clean clothes, assess their needs, coordinate services with other agencies and monitor their well-being. There is no guaranteed funding for an emergency response to this population and no staff or facility identified to provide shelter.
As of today, there are 11 individuals and one family being sheltered in local hotels and houses. There are others, however, who are not eligible for a hotel stay. They are still walking the streets and dropping into any open facility to dry out or stay warm. Several of these individuals were housed at the winter shelter that closed prematurely on March 12th because of the coronavirus. Despite the health risks and miserable weather, there has been no alternative shelter available.
For the past few years, during storms and frigid weather, several homeless individuals and families have benefitted from an informal emergency shelter program that relies heavily on the goodwill of local hotels. Funding for their hotel stays has come from an array of sources, including the Island Clergy Group, county government, mini grants, a one-time state earmark for homeless prevention, the Permanent Endowment of Martha’s Vineyard and a private donor. Despite this level of support, the emergency housing intervention fails to address the needs of all of our neighbors who are unhoused. The response is neither adequate nor cost effective. Many homeless residents remain outside.
The need for an emergency shelter is well documented. The Houses of Grace winter shelter that operates from Jan. 1 to March 31 has provided two dozen adults with dinner, breakfast and a safe place to sleep for the past four years. The shelter welcomes all adults in need, including those with mental health or substance abuse issues as long as they behave appropriately. There are others, however, adults in recovery, elders, women with trauma histories, and families who look for another option. They are the uncounted homeless on the Island. Typically, they are “couch surfing” among friends or sleeping in vehicles, sheds, garages or basements. For much of the year, many of our neighbors are able to survive in these conditions. To cope with freezing weather, a blizzard or COVID-19, people need a safe, sanitary, heated space with access to running water and food. Martha’s Vineyard does not have an emergency response plan that ensures this is available.
Karen Tewhey is the associate commissioner for homeless prevention for Dukes County.