Time to find a better solution

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We doubt the homeless problem on Martha’s Vineyard is going away anytime soon. The lack of affordable housing and rental apartments has been well-documented in recent years, and even with a Housing Bank, this problem is unlikely to get solved in the near future.

During the early stages of the pandemic, real estate on the Vineyard was at a premium. The median price went from $800,000 to $1.2 million, further exacerbating the problem for folks in need of housing on the bottom end of the scale. Winter rentals, once the lifeblood of the community, have decreased, with more people occupying their homes year-round.

Meanwhile, the number of short-term rental properties on the Island continues to grow, which also limits the number of rentals to those in the Island’s workforce. 

None of this contemplates the individuals who are homeless as a result of mental health issues or who are forced to the streets on an emergency basis because of domestic violence.

Recently, the issue of an emergency homeless shelter came to a head at an MVRHS school committee meeting. For the second year in a row, Harbor Homes was seeking permission to use a building on the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services campus as an overnight shelter. 

There was some pushback from the committee, questioning why Harbor Homes was back before them, since the previous year was supposed to be a one-time thing. But ultimately, it was approved by a 6-3 vote at a meeting on Nov. 7. 

One week later, after school board member Kris O’Brien said she had received new information that there were indeed incidents involving a police response to the shelter, the board rescinded the previous vote, and said they would take the issue up again at a future meeting.

We’re glad to report that on Monday night, after a lengthy discussion that quelled some of the fears, the school committee approved the use of the Community Services building as a shelter unanimously.

Why is the high school committee involved in the decisionmaking? The building in question is on land owned by the regional school district.

We asked Oak Bluffs Police Chief Jon Searle about the eight incidents at the shelter. He told our reporter that the incidents involved intoxicated individuals, disturbances, medical responses, and mental illness. None of them are surprising, and none of them would appear to put anyone in danger at the high school, since the shelter is used overnight.

“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.”

Searle makes a good point that there could be better locations, but where and how soon could we find such a location and get it approved? It’s unlikely that it would be approved in time to help individuals in need this winter.

An emergency overnight shelter is something that needs to be addressed before there is a need — not within weeks of needing to have a shelter in place so that people have a place to go for a warm bed and to get out of the elements.

Now that the shelter has a place to call home, it would be a good time for leaders on the Island to put together a working group to find a permanent place for the emergency homeless shelter. Such a committee should include representatives from M.V. Community Services, Harbor Homes, law enforcement, and the Island’s faith community, for starters.

Maybe the location on the M.V. Community Services’ campus will turn out to be the best, but that decision should come after studying alternatives.

The bottom line is that we as a community need to solve this problem.