The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee unanimously approved Harbor Homes using the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services campus for its overnight winter shelter. The committee had initially given permission for the shelter earlier this month before temporarily rescinding it. The committee votes on this issue because MVRHS is the owner of the campus.
Beth Folcarelli, CEO of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and Lisa Belcastro, Harbor Homes winter shelter coordinator, began with presentations about the shelter. “We had a very successful year last year,” Folcarelli said.
Several concerns that were raised during the previous meeting were addressed. One was first responders coming to the shelter; Folcarelli said, “We looked at this in two ways.” These were the average shelter guest numbers (11 people) and the total operation time (124 nights). First responders came to the shelter on six of the operational nights.
“That’s a 0.4 percent per capita utilization of 911,” Folcarelli said. Of the six days, the incidents were related to medical and mental emergencies, or intoxicated guests who arrived after the shelter was closed for the night. These individuals were transported to medical facilities, or stayed a night in jail or in a family member’s home. Folcarelli said no arrests were made, and that they did not consider these as “adverse events” because nobody was overly disrupted, threatened, or hurt.
Folcarelli also addressed why they decided to return to that location after previously saying that it would only be for a year.
“The answer to that question is we actually think it works. It’s a good spot. It was managed effectively. We have an exceptional relationship with Harbor Homes, with great communication,” Folcarelli said, adding that there are “a lot of eyes” on the campus.
Community Services is also planning to construct a new campus for its capital campaign, so Folcarelli asked the committee to consider allowing the shelter to operate longer before the building is torn down, as long as the shelter does not experience adverse events.
Meanwhile, Belcastro explained how background checks work for Harbor Homes. While Harbor Homes employees receive background checks, overnight shelter guests do not. This is a “statewide policy” among Massachusetts homeless shelters. As examples, Belcastro listed larger homeless shelters that do not conduct background checks, such as the Pine Street Inn in Boston, St. Francis in Boston, and St. Joseph’s on Cape Cod.
“You can’t get a background check in five minutes. So if someone shows up at a homeless shelter, you can’t do it,” Belcastro said.
After the presentation, committee chair Robert Lionette facilitated the discussion.
Oak Bluffs town administrator Deborah Potter asked multiple questions about the shelter’s operations in rapid-fire succession. Why is the shelter focused in Oak Bluffs rather than in multiple locations in different towns, as in years prior? How many total residents are expected per night? Are there any conflicts for people leaving at 8 am with people doing activities in surrounding facilities, such as the nearby preschool? How is the operation funded? Potter also commented on maintaining rules, such as guest conduct, guests who come with an animal, and safety.
“It does affect the operation of the town,” Potter said. She also made several suggestions on how to make the agreement language clearer, such as the process for terminating the agreement.
The shelter is privately funded by the two organizations. Folcarelli said Community Services rents the space to Harbor Homes “for a dollar.” But the operational costs are split between the two, with Harbor Homes paying for a third of it.
Belcastro said when the shelter operated as Houses of Grace, it operated in three locations: St. Andrew’s Church and the Federated Church in Edgartown. In the first two years, Good Shepherd Parish allowed the shelter to operate in its Vineyard Haven building, and later its Oak Bluffs building.
“Then COVID hit. All of the churches were closed, and we did not have an option to have a homeless shelter in any of the churches. It was not the Island churches making these decisions, it was their global dioceses making that decision,” Belcastro said. “We were blessed to get a grant through the hospital with COVID funds, and we rented the Whaling Church in Edgartown.”
The benefits of having a single location were stressed by Belcastro, such as not having to move equipment multiple times a week, and a level of stability for guests.
Belcastro also went over the duties and training of the staff members who operate the shelter. However, Harbor Homes is supported primarily by volunteers.
Another point Belcastro underscored was that although there were some incidents where the police got involved, the people who come to the shelter are those who need help. “There was no property damage, there was no violence to anyone. I mean, they’re people who are in unfortunate circumstances. Some of them for mental health reasons, some of them, yes, for addiction reasons,” Belcastro said. “But know this. I had … six [people] who were working full-time jobs who got up early in the morning and went to work every single day. And they just couldn’t afford housing, or they lost their housing because they had a summer seasonal job and they lost their housing with work.”
Folcarelli said that there is “no intersection” between guests at the shelter and unsupervised children in the area.
Oak Bluffs Police Chief Jonathan Searle said what was presented about police involvement was accurate, although there were a couple of times people called 911 themselves without the shelter’s knowledge.
Oak Bluffs select board chair Ryan Ruley made a point that the eight calls to the police is “kind of large” considering the number of guests and the length of operation.
“We have people who do business in the town of Oak Bluffs who don’t have that many calls that are alcohol establishments,” Ruley said.
Ruley continued by saying the town was “backed into a corner” because the first time Oak Bluffs officials heard about the homeless shelter decision was in the newspaper, and it was not posted on an agenda. This made the location decision for the shelter a last-minute call. Ruley also expressed concern about Oak Bluffs, which “continuously takes on regional programs.”
“I don’t see West Tisbury or Chilmark or anybody up-Island taking on these regional services. It’s a real struggle for me. We continuously put them Down-Island because it’s convenient,” Ruley said.
Ruley also coaches at MVRHS, and he needs a criminal offender record information (CORI) check to work with the students, which was another point of concern.
“You’re allowing people onto your campus that can’t get a CORI check, that can’t get a background check that — through experience, I hate to tell you this — over 80 percent of them have a criminal background,” Ruley, who is also an Edgartown Police Department sergeant, said. He added that past shelter experiences cannot be a predicter of how events can unfold. Although Ruley was not against the shelter, he felt the Community Services’ campus was the wrong spot for it.
After asking Belcastro a few questions, committee member Kris O’Brien, who brought up the police involvement during the previous meeting, said she was relieved to hear there were no incidents involving violence or students.
Committee member Kimberly Kirk said the shelter is “critically important to the community.” However, she underscored that the committee’s mission is to “support our students and protect [them].”
“Schools, just by nature of the violent world we live in, are all about security,” Kirk said.
Before the vote, a couple of committee members expressed their frustrations about the process that took place. Kathryn Shertzer was “super-frustrated” by the timing, and also felt “under the gun to make it happen.” Additionally, Shertzer said, the committee did not do its due diligence to find out about incidents on the campus. “I don’t want to live with the fact something could happen to one of our students on our campus and we chose it,” Shertzer said.
Harbor Homes executive director Sue Diverio said a part of the time crunch was her fault, since she is new. She added that she understands the concerns expressed. Still, she advocated for the shelter by sharing the increasing homelessness on the Island.
“I know from last year, our statistics are increasing for the number of homeless here on the Island. We had 136 individuals who we worked with. That doesn’t even reflect everyone, and there is a rising number of families and a rising number of victims of domestic violence. The problem is real,” Diverio said.
Martha’s Vineyard Schools Superintendent Richie Smith said he felt the amendments could allow the school district to be “truly vigilant.”
“We take safety incredibly seriously,” MVRHS Principal Sara Dingeldy said, clarifying that she had not received reports of incidents from the shelter when she said there were no incidents during a previous meeting.
Some people, including shelter volunteers, stepped forward to speak in support of the shelter’s operation.
“My son is in kindergarten now, so he was at Community Services all of last year. I just wanted to just chime in that I was there every morning and every evening, and we never felt the presence of the shelter there at all,” Oak Bluffs select board member Emma Green-Beach, who spoke as an individual and neighbor of the shelter, said. She also expressed appreciation for the committee taking their roles so seriously.
“I see the homeless not as the homeless, but as my fellow human beings and my brothers and sisters who are … temporarily in bad straits. I think it’s very important not to think of them as the other but as our fellow citizens,” Steven Power, a Tisbury resident, said.
Alongside giving approval for the shelter, the committee made other decisions about it. One was to amend the language to allow the superintendent to revoke the shelter permission, after which the committee would have to meet to agree or overrule the decision. Additionally, the agreement will expire on April 1, 2023, and Harbor Homes will need to report any incidents involving first responders to the superintendent. The other was to have a maximum nightly occupancy capacity of 20 adults, including staff, with room to adjust the limit if needed. Harbor Homes will need to notify the committee about a location by June 30, 2023, if they plan to use the location again.
Smith will modify the agreement for it to be signed by Lionette.
Meanwhile, the committee reviewed the budget and made amendments to it, which will be considered during a public hearing on Tuesday, Nov. 29.
The committee unanimously approved four individuals to the MVRHS building committee: Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) councilwoman Amira Madison, Sally Rizzo as a Tisbury representative, Geoghan Coogan as a Tisbury representative, and Elsbeth Todd as a teachers union representative. One spot was left open for a school committee member to join in the future. This brings the total number of members to 19.