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at the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) campus, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee rescinded the approval in a 7-2 vote during Tuesday night’s meeting.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.