County weighs in on homelessness and climate change

Officials discuss winter shelter options and vulnerability preparedness.

County administrator Martina Thornton, shown here during a 2019 Dukes County commission meeting, is asking anyone with ideas about shelter space to reach out.

Dukes County commissioners discussed at a meeting Wednesday how to best use funds donated by the hospital and charitable foundations to establish homeless shelters on-Island.

In years past, the Houses of Grace winter shelter program accommodated homeless people overnight, and a warming shelter was operational for people to come during the day.

This year, things are going to look different, as COVID-19 restrictions have forced the Island to look for alternative spaces and staffing options for shelters.

The Dukes County Commission is the fiscal agent for the Homelessness Prevention Coalition, and commissioners discussed options for shelters, including the Councils on Aging.

“We are in a difficult position of trying to find a space,” county manager Martina Thornton told commissioners. “If there is a space that someone would like to offer for this, please contact me or Karen Tewhey.”

Commissioner Leon Brathwaite suggested using the Oak Bluffs fire station as a shelter, and noted that it already has a laundry, beds, and showers. 

But Thornton said it would be difficult to fit a homeless shelter in the fire station with EMS being staged and dispatched regularly from that location.

She said the county is reaching out to both public and private owners of spaces to see what is available.

“The Councils on Aging are currently closed, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. Could there be an agreement that, if a Council on Aging opens up, one could be used for a shelter, and another could be used for serving the seniors in that town?” Thornton wondered.

She noted that with the donated funds, and guidance from both the Red Cross and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, she is confident that when a space is found, the necessary structure will be in place.

“When we find a good space, there will be a good team to make it safe for everyone,” she said.

Commissioner Christine Todd said that the COVID space requirements restrict a large number of people from all being in one space. This time, she suggested finding a number of smaller spaces where people could reside overnight and minimize the risk of any disease transmission.

“We are considering finding smaller spaces that, rather than housing 15 or 20 people, maybe they each house four or five people. Those individuals would be assigned to that space on a regular basis, so there is continuity there,” Todd said.

This year, Thornton said the county is not looking for overnight shelters with showers and laundry, because of COVID health protocols. She noted that the warming center will have a shower and laundry, but the overnight facilities will need to be simple in order to make space for everyone safely.


The pitch for preparedness

Ben Robinson was before the commission to discuss the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program that he would like to see become an Islandwide collaborative effort.

The MVP program is a state grant program that evaluates municipalities’ strengths and weaknesses, and establishes priority areas where the town can then apply for grant funds from the state. Communities who complete the MVP program become certified as an MVP community, and are eligible for MVP action grant funding and other opportunities.

Robinson said two groups are currently operating under the MVP umbrella: One focuses on mitigation efforts such as energy conservation and coastal infrastructure improvements, and the other focuses on adaptation and resiliency planning.

Robinson said he hopes to bring all Island towns on board in this planning process, and so far Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury have all established their own climate committees. “We expect the down-Island towns to follow suit,” Robinson said.

Robinson said the work towns do locally is essential because he anticipates the possibility of additional federal funds being made available, and municipalities need to be ready to move in on those opportunities as soon as they can.

“Once the federal government gets its act together and really starts confronting this issue, we need to be prepared on our end of that line to make use of the resources that should be coming, if they come with the change in administrations,” Robinson said.

He said mitigation and resiliency planning is often associated with more tangible issues, such as sea level rise, drought, and forest fires — but the effects of climate change touch our cultural and economic resiliency as well.

He highlighted supply chain management as being a major issue affecting our Island that people might not immediately connect to climate change.

“This gets into not just stuff coming to the Island, but stuff leaving as well. We have very little room for slack in the system. Goods and services coming to the Island are an issue. If we produce more food on the Island, we become more resilient, and are less dependent on those supply chains. The blue economy is a supply chain issue; if we are going to be an exporter of shellfish or other goods, we need to have a strong supply chain,” Robinson said.

Currently, Robinson said the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which is largely spearheading the MVP initiative on-Island, is in contact with Eversource regarding ways to move toward an all-electric Island. 

On Tuesday, the town of West Tisbury passed a nonbinding resolution to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels by 50 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040. The same article resolved to boost renewable electricity 50 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2040.

Robinson said that at the current buildout scenario, the Island would need 2.6 times the energy that is being provided through the existing electric energy grid.

He said if the entire Island were to rely wholly on electricity by 2040, it would be a third less than the energy we are currently using, including fossil fuels.

“Even though we would be increasing the demand for electricity, we would be saving energy if we weren’t using fossil fuels,” Robinson said.