Homelessness continues to be a major issue on-Island, with financial struggles of COVID, and winter weather exacerbating the danger for folks who do not have adequate and consistent living situations.
In January, Harbor Homes took the helm of homelessness prevention and remediation on Martha’s Vineyard, with support from the county, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, Martha’s Vineyard Bank, two family foundations, Bad Martha Farmer’s Brewery, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and others.
According to director of Harbor Homes Karen Tewhey, the national point-in-time count conducted annually on Jan. 26 showed 41 residents who were designated as homeless on the Island.
Tewhey said the count can only measure Island residents whose whereabouts are known, and whose status can be documented. “We have to assume there are other individuals who would qualify as homeless, but we couldn’t document their whereabouts that evening during the count,” she said.
The week following the count, Tewhey said she had three calls from individuals saying they had lost their rental, or had run out of money and were evicted from their hotel or living situation. “We have a constant stream of people running into crisis,” Tewhey said.
The report shows 31 total adults unassociated with family groups who are designated as homeless, with four adults and six children associated with family units.
Of the 41 total residents designated as homeless, the report indicates 33 sheltered and eight unsheltered individuals in living situations not meant for human habitation.
According to Tewhey, the chronically homeless population here is a “major concern,” and was the target group for the hospital when they provided $150,000 in support funding, which was supplemented from other donors and supporters of Harbor Homes.
The majority of those funds went to establishing the shelter at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, which Tewhey said is currently a “phenomenal success.”
“It’s the first time we have had to rent a space for a shelter, but it’s also the first time we have paid staff,” she said. “That funding was critical in being able to set up a formal structure that operates from November through April 15.”
Some of the funding is also paying for stays at hotels, for families or individuals with such significant mental or physical health issues that they can’t reside at the shelter.
At the time of the report, nine individuals and two members of families were living in motels paid for by the donor funds.
According to Tewhey, the health precautions established at the outset of the shelter have protected the staff and guests.
Because of COVID, she added, people have been largely socially distancing inside the facility, with folks hunkering down in the calm and supportive environment.
Bad Martha donated $10,000 for food, which Tewhey said the shelter uses to purchase food from Island restaurants for the guests.
In addition to feeding all who reside in the shelter three meals a day for five months, she said, local businesses are also being supported.
Normally, folks can leave the shelter in the morning, return for lunch from noon to 2 pm, and then return in the evening to stay overnight. But with frigid temperatures and snow, Tewhey said, the Vineyard Trust (which rents the space to Harbor Homes) allows them to operate around the clock. “That has been really great, because we haven’t had that in the past,” she said.
Although the space is well used, Tewhey noted that the shelter still has room before reaching the sleeping capacity of 13 people.
The shelter operation is being directed by Lisa Belcastro, whom Tewhey said has turned the Old Whaling Church into a “home base” for folks.
“They celebrated the holidays, the guests got Christmas gifts, they celebrated Valentine’s Day. Staff eat meals with people and joke and play board and card games,” she continued. “The purpose of this is to not just keep people alive, but to treat them with respect and support them emotionally — to give them hope that maybe they can move out of this situation.”
Harbor Homes also opened the first congregate house in Vineyard Haven for folks living below 30 percent of the area median income.
“That has been very successful,” Tewhey said, with nine people currently living in transitional housing provided by Harbor Homes.
She added that the organization just made an offer on a second property for congregate housing, with the goal of establishing a woman’s transitional housing program to provide equal access.
According to Tewhey, despite many folks still being homeless, or living in substandard conditions, she has witnessed the community swell with support for those individuals and families.
She said she recently got a call from Sheriff’s Meadow saying that they had found a tent site on their property with a portable stove and some personal belongings.
“They were going to dismantle it, but they were very compassionate, and wanted to ensure that in removing the people’s clothes and the stove, that person would be able to pick it up. So they transported it to the shelter,” Tewhey said. “This is such a small place — we know these people by name, we know their faces. They are our neighbors.”