Harbor Homes takes lead in addressing homelessness

County contracts with nonprofit to provide shelter and other support services.

The Old Whaling Church in Edgartown is just one initiative being operated by Harbor Homes — the Island’s central resource for homelessness prevention. — Ralph Stewart

Harbor Homes of Martha’s Vineyard is officially taking the helm for homelessness prevention and remediation on-Island after becoming the umbrella organization for such services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mission of Harbor Homes is to ensure that low-income residents have access to safe, sanitary, and secure housing so they can function as healthy and productive citizens. In addition to housing, the organization offers life skills education and support services that help residents move toward greater self-sufficiency. 

During the last town meeting cycle, a $25,000 article was divided up and approved by all Island towns, earmarked for homelessness prevention and substance use disorder.

At their meeting Wednesday, Dukes County commissioners approved a contract with Harbor Homes that would establish them as the central resource for homeless prevention on-Island, with the benevolent nonprofit receiving town funding from the already voted $25,000 article, and a $50,000 ask for the next fiscal year.

Going forward, county manager Martina Thornton said, funds raised and appropriated for the county homelessness caseworker job, originally held by Harbor Homes executive director Karen Tewhey, would go to hiring another caseworker administered by Harbor Homes. 

The contract was awarded, with two abstentions from commissioners Leon Brathwaite and Peter Wharton, who withheld their votes due to concerns surrounding a potential contracting conflict.

Tewhey explained that the volume of work necessary to facilitate Harbor Homes’ operating the winter shelter at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, and simultaneously acting as a caseworker for homeless prevention for the county would be overwhelming.

She said the caseworker position serves as the first point of contact for people who are experiencing housing insecurity, or are actively homeless and seeking assistance. 

“If there is nobody in this position, there is nobody for people to call when they lose their rental, or when they are homeless,” Tewhey said. “I have 37 names for the last six months of people who are in dire straits. This has been constant; there are usually one or two individuals or families for the last five years who have been in crisis.”

One important element of the job, Tewhey said, is meeting with people who are homeless or housing-insecure and conducting screenings that will allow them to be placed on a centralized list for other services across the Cape and Islands.

“It’s very Important to have someone who is qualified and trained to do that, as well as compiling the data and maintaining a database,” Tewhey said.

Commissioner Keith Chatinover asked how the winter shelter in Edgartown is going, to which Tewhey said, “It is incredibly successful.”

Tewhey noted that in the middle of the pandemic, Harbor Homes was transformed into the umbrella organization serving all homelessness needs on-Island, including creating the shelter through funding from the state, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, M.V. Community Foundation, and Martha’s Vineyard Bank. 

Tewhey said there are 17 staff members working at the shelter, along with a lead coordinator. About 17 individuals have used the program to date, she said, and around 27 people on-Island are likely to use the shelter.

“I think it is becoming more well-known and more frequented,” Tewhey said of the shelter. “Some people are there every single night — this is their home base right now.”

She added that the shelter provides each person with their own mattress, a bucket to store personal items, and extra space, in order to accommodate the COVID health protocols. 

Currently, Tewhey said, there are anywhere from 80 to 100 people experiencing homelessness on the Vineyard. Through a Community Development Block Grant program, Harbor Homes established partnerships with local hotels, and has provided temporary shelter for 12 people so far during this winter. 

After economic tribulations left many without consistent or adequate housing, Tewhey said the need for assistance is extensive. “The congregate house is full, we have a waitlist for opening a women’s house, and I am aware of people in vehicles and unheated garages and sheds — they are just staying put where they are,” Tewhey said.

Since the Old Whaling Church is considered a wet shelter, she said, the majority of people who use it have severe alcohol or drug use disorders, which can dissuade families or people in recovery from accessing the shelter.

Commission chair Christine Todd asked how Harbor Homes and the county are going to address homelessness in the long term.

Tewhey said she is looking at hiring a planner who can draft a targeted report on eliminating chronic homelessness, and added that more permanent means of addressing these issues will have to be established.

“This is a tough population that is very expensive, and very inefficient to house in a pop-up shelter,” Tewhey said. “We want someone who is really dedicated to working on this.”