Harbor Homes of Martha’s Vineyard has received a multi-year grant from the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development for its seasonal emergency homeless shelter. The nonprofit will be receiving the funds beginning in the fall of 2023. The $257,488 grant will be renewed annually “for a total contract duration” of 10 years and three months, which adds up to around $2.6 million.
The guaranteed revenue will allow Harbor Homes to “consider purchasing or entering into a long-term lease for a permanent location for the program, allowing for an extended shelter season,” according to a press release announcing the grant.
“As a new executive director, it’s very encouraging to be able to get a significant amount of money that can foster a permanent program for the vulnerable in our community,” Harbor Homes executive director Sue Diverio told The Times, a sentiment shared by the nonprofit’s staff members.
Despite the large grant, Diverio cautioned that the Island’s housing costs and and “the realities of the costs to run a shelter” made it “not an astronomical amount.”
“When you lump it together, it is large,” Diverio said. “If you separate it over 10 years, to me, it seems like it’s a realistic amount of money to provide our services.”
Harbor Homes’ overnight shelter began its seasonal operations on Thursday, Dec. 1, at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ campus. However, there were snags on its way to reopening this year on the campus. Since M.V. Community Services’ campus belongs to Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), the school committee voted on whether the shelter could operate there. Initially, the MVRHS committee gave its approval, but rescinded it a week later over concerns raised by some committee members, including police responding to incidents at the shelter last year, its proximity to locations frequented by children, and the last-minute nature of the request. After another meeting consisting of representatives from Harbor Homes, M.V. Community Services, and the Oak Bluffs government, a one-year agreement was approved for the shelter, with several stipulations.
The shelter, originally called Houses of Grace, never had a permanent home. It originally operated from different churches, like Federated Church in Edgartown. When COVID-19 hit and church dioceses closed their buildings to the public, Harbor Homes rented Old Whaling Church, a historic building in Edgartown owned by Vineyard Preservation Trust, for its shelter with a grant from Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Later, operations were moved to the M.V. Community Services campus on a one-year agreement in 2021. Harbor Homes returned this year to request a renewal.
“That created a lot of transitions, and we needed three times the supplies,” winter shelter coordinator Lisa Belcastro said about the constant moving, listing the need for beds in three locations as an example. “The shelter itself ran smoothly, but there were a lot of inconveniences … it really hit home how much we need a location.”
A permanent location for a homeless shelter was discussed even before Harbor Homes was incorporated in 2018.
“We began talking as a community in 2017,” Karen Tewhey, former Harbor Homes executive director and its current director of institutional advancement, said.
Harbor Homes will also receive technical assistance from the department “on how to upgrade the standards of the shelter to comply with state requirements,” the release states.
“For example, current ‘guests’ at the shelter sleep on air mattresses. Beginning in 2023, the shelter facility will offer single beds with clean linens that are separated by gender,” the release states. The department also provides biweekly training for shelter administrators, and a department liaison will support Harbor Homes “as they address the challenges of housing this vulnerable population.”
“The people who go to the shelter will feel more welcome in the community, knowing they have a home,” Tewhey said. “The whole quality of the experience will be so much better … there will just be a sense of security.”
Harbor Homes currently has a real estate agent looking for a property, and Tewhey said the aim is to find somewhere down-Island because of the amenities, particularly public transportation. The M.V. Community Services campus is a great place, since many of the shelter guests use services offered there, and a bus stop is nearby, according to Tewhey.
“Some of the guests go to work, others want to get something to eat or go to the library,” Tewhey said.
A permanent location also means improved help for more Islanders, such as domestic violence victims, according to Belcastro.
Belcastro said hopefully wherever the desirable property for the shelter is found, Harbor Homes would receive support from the town it is in.
Services to help homeless people are a rising need on Martha’s Vineyard. During Harbor Homes’ fiscal year 2022 (July 2021 to July 2022), 136 individuals were served through its homeless prevention caseworker, Maura Morrison. Some individuals also used other Harbor Homes services, such as the hotel respite program. Diverio said 125 individuals were served during the previous fiscal year.
“Does that mean every homeless person comes to her? Absolutely not,” Diverio said, adding that these numbers were “fluid,” and the actual on-Island homeless population is unknown.
Diverio also provided demographic information about who was served during fiscal year 2022, although all categories had portions of the served homeless population that were “unknown” for statistics. Among the 136 individuals, 46 percent were male, 42 percent were female, while 12 percent did not identify their sex. Caucasians made up 34 percent of the population, with the next largest racial groups were unknowns at 33 percent and African Americans at 15 percent. Veterans made up 1 percent of the homeless group. Some people had permanent (4 percent) or temporary (29 percent) disabilities.
Some 43 percent of these individuals identified as “chronically homeless,” while 6 percent were unknown. Another 16 percent were couch surfers, 35 percent were unemployed, but 26 percent were employed, and 16 percent had Social Security income or Social Security Disability income.
Among these homeless individuals, 53 percent were alone, 40 percent were in families, and 7 percent were unknown. A large chunk of the population, 23 percent, had unidentified ages, and 23 percent of the population were under 20 years old. The rest of the age makeup were 8 percent being 20-29, 15 percent being 30-39, 7 percent being 40-49, 11 percent being 50-59, 9 percent being 60-69, and 4 percent being 70-79.
Belcastro said some people fear a permanent homeless shelter would attract more individuals to the Island. “I don’t think the public realizes how many homeless people are on the Island,” Belcastro said.
The current shelter has a capacity limit of 20 people, including two shelter workers. According to Belcastro, even with the grant, Harbor Homes will only be able to house up to 25 individuals in a permanent shelter, which is 18.38 percent of the population served in fiscal year 2022. Serving more people on-Island from elsewhere in Massachusetts is “just not possible.”
“Those weren’t people who came because we had a shelter. They were already here,” Belcastro said. “I hope as we do this, we can educate more of our Island community on what Harbor Homes does, where the services are, and having a full-time homeless building isn’t going to bring more people here.”