The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee at its Monday meeting consented to allow Harbor Homes to establish a homeless shelter at the old Early Childhood Center at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.
Because the high school is the landowner of the entire community services campus, the committee must approve any change of use to facilities on the property. With the consent of the school committee, Harbor Homes will eliminate its existing shelters and move all their operations into the community services building.
According to shelter director for Harbor Homes Lisa Belcastro, the spaces where the current shelters are housed, such as the Old Whaling Church and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, are too small to meet the needs of homeless and housing-insecure people on the Island, especially with COVID cases climbing.
Belcastro told school committee members that there will be a maximum capacity of 20 people in the new facility, including any staff. “So it would be more like 12 to 15 shelter residents, with staff on top of that,” Belcastro said.
The high school is not involved with the direct agreement, which will be between Harbor Homes and community services, but it is insured and indemnified as the landlord of the property.
Committee member Kim Kirk raised concerns about security, noting that the shelter will be adjacent to the high school and the new, active Early Childhood Center at Community Services.
She said she is worried that the high school will not have a record of who is coming and going from the shelter.
Committee chair Amy Houghton said one of the documents that was sent to the high school administration was a registration form that everyone is required to fill out before they are admitted to the shelter. The form asks for information about veteran status, health insurance, and other personal particulars, but does not request any information on criminal history.
Some committee members were concerned about security regarding registered sex offenders and people with a violent or predatory background who may be coming and going from the facility.
Committee member Kelly McCracken said that, by statute, someone with that kind of history would not be allowed within a certain distance of an educational institution. Belcastro stressed that for everyone who comes to the homeless shelter, they have already tapped their last resort, and are desperate for food or shelter.
“We don’t ask anyone if they have a criminal record — they’re homeless, so there is a good chance someone may or may not have one. We wouldn’t kick someone out if they did have one,” Belcastro said.
She added that in the seven years she has directed the shelter, she has never encountered a violent incident, and the majority of police calls are due to mental health issues or protective custody requirements for people who are intoxicated.
Additionally, the surrounding police and fire departments have offered their support for the shelter, and already have a longstanding read on who is homeless and who might utilize the shelter. Harbor Homes has also conferred with the Oak Bluffs building department and the board of health, who gave the project their blessing.
Belcastro noted that there are no schoolchildren around when the shelter is open in the nighttime hours, and shelter staff employ a high degree of vigilance to make sure no one is disturbing or endangering each other, or the public.
Initially, one condition of the change of use consent was to allow the school committee to end the agreement if it is no longer in the best interest of the school district, at which point Harbor Homes would have five days to vacate.
That condition was adjusted to allow the superintendent to suspend operation of the shelter immediately, and call a school committee meeting within 24 hours. The school committee would then meet within five days of the superintendent’s decision, and have the chance to terminate the operation altogether, or reopen it.
Committee member Skipper Manter said not only is he concerned about the safety of schoolchildren, but also the safety and well-being of the entire neighborhood on the community services side of the road.
“I am also concerned about Schoolhouse Village and the elderly home there, Woodside Village,” Manter said, adding that he thinks Harbor Homes hasn’t fully disclosed the degree of police response to the existing shelters. “I believe the police have been called there for other reasons,” Manter said.
As of now, the change of use agreement for the new shelter ends on the night of March 31, 2022, when Harbor Homes will have to begin vacating the premises and searching for another location.
The top floor of the old Early Childhood Center is currently being used for administration and overflow office space for the main Community Services buildings. It will continue to be used for this purpose after the shelter is gone, until Community Services decides what to do with it.
During a phone conversation with Belcastro, she told The Times this new shelter will be the only overnight location for the time being. Hours of operation will not change: seven days a week, with guest check-in at 6 pm and departure at 8 am the following morning.
Belcastro and the rest of the Harbor Homes team are working on establishing a start date for the Community Services shelter. For now, all shelter services will be unchanged.
There are no showers available at the overnight facility, but the daytime warming centers will offer showers and lunches during their regular hours of operation.
In the future, Belcastro said, she hopes Harbor Homes can find a permanent headquarters for its homeless shelter, as the housing crisis continues and COVID makes facilitating a shelter even more difficult.
“We are constantly looking, asking, begging for a permanent space — it hasn’t happened yet,” Belcastro said. “We need a much bigger solution to this problem.”