Pandemic exacerbates homelessness issues on M.V.

Hospital offers support with reopening shelters and creating program to combat homelessness.

St. Andrew’s Church normally houses homeless, but COVID health restrictions have kept the shelters closed so far.

The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital is looking to support homeless shelters on-Island so they can open to the public.

Because of COVID-19 health guidelines, the warming shelters and overnight shelters provided by organizations like the Houses of Grace require additional measures to be taken if they are to open this cold season.

Shelters must have enough space to safely accommodate people while adhering to social distancing, and staff must be trained on health protocols. A large proportion of volunteer staff who have worked at the shelters in the past are in the susceptible age group, so they won’t be able to safely volunteer this year.

According to Karen Tewhey, associate commissioner for homeless prevention in Dukes County, the first issue that presents itself with a lack of shelters is that individuals who are cold often go to the emergency room and come up with illnesses or physical ailments so they can stay inside the hospital. But Tewhey said there will be no place for the hospital to release homeless people to if the shelters aren’t open, and hospitals everywhere are trying to prevent overcrowding.

“Those who are homeless are going to camp out in the State Forest and light fires. We see what has happened on the West Coast, and we are talking about people who are drinking and doing drugs to deal with their situation,” Tewhey said. “That presents a dangerous situation.”

She also said homeless people will try to get arrested in order to take shelter at the jail, and break into people’s houses for warmth or food. 

According to the Rev. Vincent (“Chip”) Seadale, rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, the first step to providing shelters to homeless people through the Houses of Grace Island Winter Shelter Program is to find a large enough space to accommodate everyone.

“In a perfect world, we would get a large space with enough square footage so there isn’t a lot of aerosol loading,” Seadale said. “If we have 15 or so people with a couple of staff, that is going to require a larger building than St. Andrew’s.”

Seadale said the discussion regarding finding a space for the shelter, and hiring staff and a full-time coordinator, is ongoing. “The conversation right now is knowing whether or not this might be a go soon,” Seadale said.

In hiring staff to tend to the shelters, Seadale said, they would need support from the hospital in the way of regular testing, and PPE procurement. 

“We are really in the initial stages of the dialogue. I think it would be nice to offer something, but at this point we really need a designated space,” Seadale said. 

Seadale noted there are specific regulations laid out by the state that dictate what health protocols need to be followed in both daytime and overnight shelters.

“On the one hand, it’s a great thing to offer to our friends, families, and neighbors — a warm place to stay that is safe — but we need to find a space that is large enough to accommodate those who need it,” Seadale said. “We all have a moral responsibility to suggest to our selectmen that something needs to be done about this. I think it’s part and parcel to the larger housing effort.”

He noted the huge community role that Harbor Homes of Martha’s Vineyard plays on-Island, and said that model could be a good reference for future growth on the issue of homelessness.

Hospital CEO Denise Schepici said during a press conference Wednesday that the hospital is in the early stages of developing a plan with the Dukes County Health Council to reopen the Island warming and overnight shelters for the homeless.

“As winter is well on its way, reopening the shelters is still complicated due to fears of the spread of COVID-19,” Schepici said. She noted that discussions are still in the preliminary stages, but the goal is to support the shelters so they can be reactivated. 

Schepici added that she is willing to put grant money up toward a solution, but right now is focused on how to create an effective program.

“It’s going to be an acute problem very soon,” Schepici said. “The days are not getting warmer.”

Victor Capoccia has been part of a group called the MVH Concerned Citizens Group, which raised concerns about leadership at the hospital in 2017.

He told The Times that, at a recent Dukes County Health Council meeting, Schepici showed great responsiveness to a major community issue by supporting a full-time person to develop a plan and resources to deal with chronic homelessness as a systemic issue. 

“This is a very significant issue, and it has been an issue here for a long time,” Capoccia said. “In a heroic way, it has been addressed on a volunteer basis by the clergy, but there has never been a designated, systematic response. We still need charity, but we need more than that if we are to really address this directly.”