Possible homeless shelter space found

Community organizations seek to meet the growing need for warming and overnight shelters.

Karen Tewhey, executive director for Harbor Homes and homeless coordinator, said a possible shelter location is being considered to accommodate the Island homeless population during the winter. — Lexi Pline

Harbor Homes of Martha’s Vineyard is looking at a possible winter shelter space to accommodate homeless people during the day and overnight. 

Homelessness continues to be a problem for Martha’s Vineyard, and with housing issues and the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic touching many here, that problem is only growing. But a number of organizations, like Harbor Homes, the Houses of Grace, and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, are working together to figure out a way to keep people safe and comfortable during the cold winter months. 

Initially, the volunteer base established within the Vineyard faith community (through Houses of Grace) and the broader Island community would serve homeless people at St. Andrew’s Epsicopal Church in Edgartown, but a large portion of those volunteers are in the susceptible age range of 65 and older.

Because of this, combined with the stringent space requirements laid out by major public health institutions, community homelessness advocates were forced to restructure and rethink how they might deliver accommodations to people this winter. 

Karen Tewhey, Harbor Homes executive director, said she was approached by a community organization that offered a space for a winter shelter that would be able to accommodate around 15 people.

Tewhey said the conversation is still being had, and Harbor Homes may sign a lease soon. 

According to Tewhey, the original plan was to locate smaller spaces to house the majority of the homeless population on the Island. But she said having multiple locations would require more staffing, which is currently very limited.

Advertisements will be posted soon for two paid positions: a part-time program coordinator who will oversee scheduling, and a shelter provider who will sleep at the shelter and oversee general operations. Both of these are temporary positions, from November through March, Tewhey said.

As of now, Harbor Homes is hoping the larger shelter space will meet the needs of the community. She said there are subcommittees formed for food issues and COVID protocols that will work to create a structured system for any shelter options. The hospital is working closely with Harbor Homes to ensure that any space will be safe for occupants.

In addition to paid staff, Tewhey said they are also looking for volunteers in order to possibly extend hours and serve other needs in the homeless population.

According to Tewhey, the prospective shelter would be available 24 hours a day for the winter season, so it is possible that the space could serve as both a daytime and nighttime shelter.

“That is really important, because there is currently no warming shelter established,” Tewhey said.

Although hot meals will not be prepared onsite due to COVID health restrictions, Tewhey said, the shelter will be giving out bagged meals. She added that the shelter cannot accept donated food like casseroles or other baked goods because of health restrictions.

“Preparing, serving, cleaning. We are really trying to make this process as simple and risk-free as possible. We are using all paper goods, and utilizing food that is easy to prepare and serve,” Tewhey said.

The shelter will serve a core group of people who will be identified and kept track of. When people show up at the shelter, their information will be processed and their temperature taken. They will also undergo an onsite screening.

If anyone is found to have been exposed to COVID, or is showing symptoms, Tewhey said, Harbor Homes is working on procedures to quarantine and mitigate exposure to others in the shelter.

“The tricky thing with COVID is, What if someone who is frequenting the shelter does become ill? We are looking into what the options are to quarantine that person, both immediately onsite, then what the long-term options are,” Tewhey said.

Volunteers or staff who are conducting screenings at the shelter do not have to have a health background, but will be trained by a medical professional. The shelter will also need individuals who have training in mental health issues.

Harbor Homes treasurer and Houses of Grace volunteer Marjorie Mason said the majority of the community is aware how the homelessness leadership on the Island has had to rapidly reinvent how the shelter program can work.

Apart from a prospective shelter, Mason said she wants to appeal to landlords and homeowners whose homes sit largely unoccupied during the winter months,

She referred to a program in Falmouth called Belonging to Each Other, a winter program where landlords accept a modest amount of rent and accommodate homeless people in their houses. Professional social service and health workers monitor and assist in those spaces, and make sure procedures are adhered to and oversight is administered.

“That is absolutely lifesaving,” Mason said. “On the Vineyard, we kind of have a mindset toward any rental property being used for maximum profit — that is a habit of thinking that really could be re-examined. I am positive there are landlords in our community who would be willing to revisit that way of thinking.”

On the Cape and Islands, Mason said there are more than 30 people per year who die as a result of homelessness. “This issue needs to be part of the larger conversation,” she said. “There are terrible consequences to having people who might not only be underserved, but neglected entirely. I think little by little, the word is getting out to the community.”

With COVID, Mason said, there will be more evictions, and more people who are losing their financial stability due to various issues. Apart from people who could find themselves newly homeless, there are people who continue to live in substandard housing and dangerous conditions outdoors, she said.

“The hospital and the boards of health are aware of this, but the public is only dimly aware of this,” Mason said. “People who love this Island need to understand that there are third world crises happening right here, right now.”

The Rev. Vincent (“Chip”) Seadale, rector at St. Andrew’s and member of Houses of Grace, said he hopes there will be a space secured by the first of December. He added that he is excited and heartened to see additional community involvement in supporting the homeless population on-Island.

“Being a leader of a faith community on the Island, my heart rejoices to see how much interest, caring, and involvement there are from so many community members,” Seadale said.