Lodging homeless saps county funds

Some have hotels, others live in tents and risk public health, official says. 

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Housing counselor Karen Tewhey says more needs to be done to help the homeless population during the pandemic.

Dukes County, in cooperation with the Vineyard nonprofit Harbor Homes, is providing lodging for 11 homeless individuals and a homeless family of three in Island hotels during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Karen Tewhey, president of Harbor Homes and Dukes County associate commissioner for homeless, told The Times not everyone who would benefit from a hotel room during the pandemic has one. Mental health or substance abuse issues and have effectively “blacklisted” these people, she said. 

“We had a woman sleeping in a car, a person in a box truck, a tent, a shed,” she said.

Unexpectedly, she said, the Houses of Grace Island Winter Shelter Program closed this year on March 13 instead of March 31, compounding the plight of the Vineyard’s homeless. 

The Houses of Grace program requires four volunteers a night and these tend to be older, retired people. Once the virus hit, those volunteers started to pull out, she said. With no emergency homeless shelter on the Vineyard, the options are limited, she said.

“We currently don’t have a permanent shelter or an emergency shelter, be it for a virus or a blizzard,” she said. Funding for the folks in hotels is dwindling, she added. Tewhey estimated it will be exhausted by the first week of May.

On Wednesday night, she told Dukes County Commissioners the county fund had approximately $437 left but that Harbor Homes has received a $5,000 donation from the Permanent Endowment for Martha’s Vineyard and another $5,000 donation from Martha’s Vineyard Bank. The combined funds would keep the homeless lodged until May 7, she said.

She also told the commissioners that the Vineyard’s homeless present a public health problem. While part of the utility of hotel lodging is that it isolates, those who aren’t in hotels — some who are “chronically homeless” — could exacerbate the spread of the pathogen. 

“It’s a public health issue,” she said. “I’ve seen gentlemen who I know are chronically homeless. They’re not taking precautions.” She said she sees these people at the Vineyard Haven Post Office, Cumberland Farms, Stop & Shop, and the Steamship Authority  terminal. 

“Those are the only buildings that are open,” she said, as they have no other options to come in from the elements. Tewhey said the lack of an emergency shelter leaves few alternatives.

Dukes County manager Martina Thornton said the entire state is grappling with how to aid the homeless during the pandemic. She said she has reached out to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) on the issue and is still waiting to hear back.  

Reportedly homeless shelters are opening up off-Island with MEMA funding, she said. 

Dukes County Commissioner Christine Todd said the Vineyard’s homeless are part of the Dukes County Health Council agenda next week. 

Prior to the meeting, Edgartown Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer, chairman of the Vineyard’s emergency managers, said issues related to the homeless, particularly the need for an emergency shelter, aren’t lost on Vineyard’s emergency management community. He said it’s a regular subject at meetings. In a nutshell, he said the planning models Vineyard emergency managers have at their disposal cover finite post-catastrophic events, not “new and different” scenarios like a pandemic, which is a rolling emergency. 

“We’re working to find solutions,” he said