Homeless shelter approval rescinded

MVRHS committee schedules new meeting based on updated information.

The MVRHS committee rescinded the contingent approval for Harbor Homes' homeless shelter at the Martha's Vineyard Community Services campus. — Lucas Thors

A little over a week after approving a request by Harbor Homes to operate its homeless shelter at the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) campus, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee rescinded the approval in a 7-2 vote during Tuesday night’s meeting. Another meeting will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 22, at 7 pm to receive input from relevant parties before making a decision. 

Committee member Kris O’Brien requested a reconsideration of the vote as an unanticipated issue. 

“It’s been brought to my attention that there were issues, at least what I would consider to be issues, last year. I asked before we voted if there were any issues, and we were told there were not. I spoke with the chief of police [Jonathan Searle] today. There were eight calls that the Oak Bluffs Police Department had to respond to in the 10 weeks that the shelter was open and I consider that to be an issue,” O’Brien said. 

Searle told The Times Wednesday afternoon that O’Brien had contacted him to ask about police responses to the shelter. He checked and the department records showed eight times between mid-January and March when officers responded to calls to the shelter. These incidents included intoxicated individuals, disturbances, medical responses, and mental illness. 

“I do agree that there could be better locations for it, but I am firmly behind the shelter itself,” Searle said, referencing the shelter’s proximity to the high school, YMCA, and the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena. “We will assist in any way that we can.”

The committee votes on this issue because MVRHS is the owner of the campus. During the Nov. 8 committee meeting, MVRHS principal Sara Dingledy said there were no incidents to report. 

Committee chair Robert Lionette hesitated “putting a vote of this magnitude as a topic not reasonably anticipated.” O’Brien later pointed out the committee voted to approve the shelter, with stipulations, as an unanticipated topic. 

“It’s pretty clear the town was to inform us if there were concerns. Those concerns would then allow us at any time to end the relationship immediately with a five-day notice,” Lionette said. “This committee was never informed of any issues or concerns throughout [the] tenure [of] Harbor Homes in the facility across the street. I really wish if the police department had concerns they would have raised them to us and we would have been able to act upon them in accordance with the agreement.”

O’Brien pressed the issue, saying “does the school not consider eight calls by the police department to our campus?” and why nobody on the school administration or committee asked if there were any problems. Lionette said he was not aware of any Oak Bluffs’ governing bodies that raised concerns or indicated they would not approve the shelter. Additionally, the committee did not receive reports about issues from MVCS or Harbor Homes. 

“I’m telling you that it is my personal opinion that I voted last time under misinformation. I consider police having to report to our campus for intoxicated individuals and for people dealing with their mental illness to be an issue, for me, on our campus,” O’Brien said. “It’s a very difficult thing to say because I am so sensitive and concerned for the homeless, but I’m not elected to be concerned. My concern is for our students. We were elected for budget, policy, and the evaluation of the superintendent. There are people … who do this for a living, that is their job to take care of them, and ours is to put our students first.”

Lionette asked Martha’s Vineyard superintendent Richie Smith if he heard about issues from Searle.

“I did hear from an Oak Bluffs police officer and that’s when I reached out to you,” Smith said, although not from Searle. “Also a select board member, same person.”

However, there is no Oak Bluffs police officer who is also a select board member. Oak Bluffs select board member Ryan Ruley is an officer, but he is a member of the Edgartown Police Department. Smith was not immediately available for clarification.
Kimberly Kirk echoed some of O’Brien’s points. 

“When this was brought up, and I mentioned this last week, it was as a short-term fix,” Kirk said, adding, “Frankly, I think to say that it is someone else’s responsibility to inform us so that we can stay blissfully ignorant of what’s going on around us is not a responsible approach to take.” 

Kirk continued, saying Harbor Homes does not do background checks and the shelter’s near the school. She made a motion to reconsider the vote. Later, committee member Louis Paciello said he previously voted against the approval “based on a lot of my personal interactions with this community and my fear was exactly what was described tonight.” 

Harbor Homes winter shelter coordinator Lisa Belcastro told The Times that while there are background checks for long-term shelter programs, like Tashmoo House, it is the “industry standard” in Massachusetts not to do background checks for walk-in overnight shelters.

“We’re housing people who need help. We’re not trying to make their lives harder,” Belcastro said, adding that she never felt that a background check was needed while working the overnight shelter and “background checks aren’t instantaneous.” Additionally, some of the people coming to the shelter are full-time workers who just could not find winter housing because of living costs on the Island. 

“We don’t require background checks for people to be parents,” Belcastro said. 

Oak Bluffs town administrator Deborah Potter said the original agreement was for one year and “all of the indications from Harbor Homes” was that there was no intention to renew the agreement beyond the term. 

“The reason you didn’t hear from us is because this was not on your agenda and we had no idea that this was even going to be discussed. We would have brought these concerns to you if we had been informed. That is what we find disappointing,” Potter said, adding that not even a “courtesy notice” was provided to the town. “I’m good at a lot of things, but I’m not omnipotent,” she later said. 

After more discussion, the vote was made with Lionette and committee member Roxanne Ackerman being the only dissenters. 

“It isn’t that we don’t support wanting to solve the issue for the homelessness, we just have to be very careful with our campus,” O’Brien said after the vote.


  1. Having human beings in need sheltering on our high school’s campus is a top-of-the-line learning experience for students and teachers alike. An opportunity for all to observe, learn, understand, and do something about one of the most pressing problems in our community. Welcome them.

    • As I understand it, the shelter is actually on the M.V. Community Services campus, not that of the high school, though the high school owns the land. This makes the MVRHS school committee’s objections all the more interesting.

  2. 8 calls in 10 weeks is reason enough to shut down a badly needed shelter during the winter? Surely there is a better solution. Surely more information needs to be gathered. Surely there’s a solution that comes from empathy not fear.

  3. Wrong place period, do you really want methadone dependent addicts around the High School?, surely there’s a solution if people care that doesn’t evolve the children.

    • Why do you assume they are on methadone? Have you volunteered here? I have. Your assumptions are inaccurate and unnecessarily judgmental. Have you seen the housing crisis? There are many ways to end up unsheltered on the island. Get involved in your community before you spew senseless nonsense like this.

  4. So many questions. Does the shelter operate when school is in session? (“Overnight” suggests to me that it doesn’t, but I don’t know.) Do the calls come in to police when the shelter is open or are they sometimes related to individuals hanging around when it’s not? Where do the MVCS admininstrators and staff stand in all this, since we’re talking about where *they* — not the MVRHS school committee — work? The land may belong to the high school, but is Community Services really part of the high school’s “campus”?

    • The shelter is overnight only, when I volunteered there there was no overlap with school hours. There are also a minimum of two staff/volunteers at all times. I am not familiar with the calls that came in or their context/timing, but I am familiar with the amazing folks who run the shelter program and the guests who use this life-saving service. I never felt unsafe and always genuinely enjoyed my time volunteering there, eating dinner together and chatting with the guests every shift. I wish people would engage with the program–it would honestly put so much of these fears to rest. Is it a long-term solution? No. But it is the only one until the island community, and specifically the TOWNS (who fund NONE OF THIS and contribute in NO WAY WHATSOEVER to solutions) this is the best option. Shifting around to multiple church basements throughout the week is not a realistic alternative. The space is otherwise unused.

      • Kat, how many years ago did you volunteer at this shelter?
        How many people stayed there day and night? What issues did these homeless have. drugs, violence, domestic abuse…
        Over the years many things have changed. Please answer these questions.

  5. Not so long ago, when my children were at the MVRHS, I chaperoned two groups of MVRHS students and youth fellowships from multiple island churches: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, West Tisbury Congregational Church, Edgartown Federated Church, and the Methodist Churches to Boston’s Common Cathedral’s City Reach Program, http://commoncathedral.org/. It was truly an impactful educational experience for students and adult chaperones alike. A compassion building weekend that explained to us the gaps that created the situation of being unhoused for so many and asked us to be the community that welcomed those who fell through the gaps, with their struggles and challenges, so that with our care and understanding could be part of the solution. Now, we no longer need to go to Boston to find this crisis. Let’s be part of the solution here.

    • Indeed. I worked at the Homeless Shelter in Newport RI before I moved the Island. It was one of the most profound and endearing endeavors of my life. Everyone benefited!
      I hope this situation is resolved quickly and peacefully

    • So very well said. Was a resident at Father Bill’s and even they had to summon police for drunkenness or altered mental status as long as they’be been available.

  6. That is really a shame. Using that community resource to help our community members in urgent need is appropriate and right. It served a big need last winter, it worked well and probably kept some people alive. If a few problems were easily dealt with by police, that’s actually a good thing. If homeless folks aren’t at the shelter, they’re possibly in the woods behind the school. Is that better? It is on the MV Community Services campus, where Island Counselling, Veteran’s Services and IWYC also serve people in need. Are they next? I’m disappointed in the sentiment and the vote of the school committee.

  7. The Vineyard can do better, we rally around immigrants dumped on us by the Florida governor, yet we can’t take care of people that grew up here and find themselves homeless.

    • How do you know that these homeless individuals grew up here?
      Can you identify is these individuals are residents?
      Do the police know them?
      How many are living full time in the shelter?

  8. I agree with James.
    Many of our fellow islanders have found themselves without a home , due to many circumstances , and it seems that a safe temporary shelter, with support for permanent housing solutions, is something we have the ability to provide. I don’t think that being homeless makes you a threat to high school students , or the general public.

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