Homelessness and a lack of housing is a well-known issue on Martha’s Vineyard. To combat this crisis, Harbor Homes has led the way in providing respite to homeless individuals on the Island, with a new facility to come. On Wednesday, Harbor Homes closed on an Oak Bluffs property located at 111 New York Ave. to act as its facility for homeless women. Harbor Homes paid $1.3 million for the property, according to the Dukes County Registry of Deeds.
According to Karen Tewhey, executive director of Harbor Homes, the number of homeless people on the Island has been consistent over the past five years, hovering around 100 individuals. This past year has seen around 80 individuals.
Tewhey said she believed these numbers underestimate the number of homeless people, because they only include those who directly contacted Harbor Homes for help, not the entire homeless population on the Island. Families with children are especially undercounted. “If you’re a parent and you don’t have a secure place to house your kids, you really don’t want to make an announcement about that,” said Tewhey. “People try to be as discreet as possible.” Of the families with children who have contacted Harbor Homes, some families couch-surf, temporarily stay with friends or family, have kids stay with others while parents stay in vehicles, or live in tents during the summer.
Even if people find a roof over their heads, it may not be the ideal place to live. The Harbor Homes website states that “some of the housing being rented on the Vineyard meets the HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] definition of ‘not meant for human habitation,’ and the resident qualifies as homeless.” Tewhey said that the people who reached out to her have lived in various places, such as sheds, garages, lean-tos, vans, and nonfunctioning cars. There is a general agreement that people should not be living in these conditions, but there is just not enough housing or rental units to meet the great amount of demand. “The boards of health are aware of it. We’re all aware of it,” said Tewhey.
“A lot of the individuals who are homeless are working, or they’ve lived here their entire lives and don’t want to leave the Island,” said Tewhey.
Harbor Homes conducts different efforts to combat homelessness, such as a shelter at Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. A big step was the acquisition of a Tisbury single-family property in 2020, known as the Tashmoo House. The Tashmoo House is a homeless men’s program that provides “life skills education” in a communal-living, six-bedroom environment. Tewhey said so far, the Tashmoo House program has been “very successful.” The New York Ave. House in Oak Bluffs will act in the same way as the Tashmoo House, except it will be a program for women.
The residents will each have personal rooms, with a communal area and kitchen. Tewhey said that she hopes Harbor Homes will eventually be able to find housing for everyone in the future, but women who are substance abusers or who have serious mental instability will not be considered for residency at New York Ave. House.
This women’s residency program aims at creating an environment where the residents can flourish, and Tewhey does not want to add to their hardships. Tewhey said that substance abusers and the mentally ill should receive help, but New York Ave. House is not the place for it. Tashmoo House has a similar approach for the men.
The New York Ave. House will also act as the new headquarters of Harbor Homes. “It will be a big leap for us,” said Tewhey. “We’re very excited about this. It makes Harbor Homes have a home as well.”
When looking for a property, the goal was to find a place that could provide basic, safe, and comfortable housing. It also needed to have at least five bedrooms. New York Ave. House used to be the Martha’s Vineyard Resort, “a bed and breakfast,” before it was sold. Its location and established architecture for communal living made it a great property for Harbor Homes to acquire. Tewhey had the fortune of having an interview with the previous owners of the property, the Robinsons. They wanted the property to be an asset for the community, and readily sold it. The Robinsons will be neighbors with New York Ave. House.
Tewhey said they intended to buy the property by April, but issues with the title delayed the purchase to July.
Tewhey said that they were fortunate to have received the mortgage from Martha’s Vineyard Bank, donors’ general contributions, and financial support from all of the towns, except Edgartown, during the purchasing process.
The application forms will be available online starting next week, according to Tewhey. There were 24 women who applied for residency before the property was even bought, but for fairness, the qualified applicants will be selected through lottery, since many didn’t even know New York Ave. House was happening. Tewhey will also advertise the program through the newspapers. Copies of the application form will be also available at the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority’s office. Tewhey said she doesn’t anticipate residents until at least September.
Only adults 18 years or older will be eligible for the New York Ave. House program. The applicant’s income must be at or below 30 percent of the median family income (MFI) for Dukes County, the MFI being $104,700, according to the Dukes County Housing Authority. The applicant must be homeless, or at risk of being homeless. Individuals need to be able to contribute to the maintenance and expenses of the house, which consists of a monthly fee of $450. More information about the New York Ave. House program can be found at the Harbor Homes website.