The need for a program to house the homeless in the winter on Martha’s Vineyard is undeniable. Just last week, we received reports that homeless veterans without housing were camped in Island woods; individuals experiencing homelessness are also in plain sight in Vineyard Haven. As has been reported in the past, there’s concern that without a program, some will seek shelter at the emergency room at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital when the cold sets in.
Protecting and housing our most vulnerable is an essential part of building and maintaining a healthy community.
That is why the reaction to a proposed winter shelter in an Oak Bluffs neighborhood leaves an unsettling feeling. Some of the reactions — not all of them — could be chalked up to “not in my backyard.”
During a recent hearing, residents cited a fear of schoolchildren stumbling on drug paraphernalia; there was a worry about used needles showing up in the neighborhood, concerns about safety and the shattering of a tranquil neighborhood.
We fear that some residents may have been more motivated to keep out the bad aesthetics of a homeless shelter, rather than motivated by helping out our fellow Islanders. And to know that nimbyism ultimately won out is disheartening.
Residents were challenging a proposal brought forward by the Island nonprofit Harbor Homes. The group had a purchase and sales agreement with the owner of a multi-unit property on Hudson Avenue, where they intended to provide space to house about 20 individuals, including children and families.
As described by officials with the nonprofit, the individuals looking for shelter can suffer from mental illness or drug addiction; some are families and workers who have been displaced by the Island’s housing crisis and other life circumstances.
In years preceding the pandemic, the homeless could seek shelter at local churches. Then Harbor Homes started a temporary solution at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, following the height of the pandemic. The shelter opened up again this week for what will likely be the last winter there. Community Services is planning a renovation, and the building the shelter uses is scheduled to come down. But these have all been temporary.
The Hudson Avenue property in Oak Bluffs provided an opportunity for a non-temporary location.
But almost before it even got a chance, Harbor Homes withdrew its application, citing both the concerns of neighbors and additional permitting the town would require.
While it is tough to give credence to residents worried about needles, maybe having local officials — the police department, health officials, social workers — address some of these neighbors’ concerns in a hearing that would have left Harbor Homes and a non temporary winter shelter in a better place.
Instead, the residents living nearby have won, and the homeless are out again, with no permanent location.
Since its withdrawal, the nonprofit has announced that it would again be looking for a location. But at what point — when a location is found in some far-off region of the Island, or even worse, off-Island — do we push back against the not-in-my-backyard attitude?
There is a real issue with homelessness. These are people who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. They need proper services; they need help, not to be kicked around the Island. But instead, what has won out so far is to banish them from our neighborhoods. That shouldn’t be the Vineyard’s way.
The Hudson Ave. location may be a lost cause for now. If it is, hopefully another location can be approved and set up before next winter. We hope that town and regional officials can help ease concerns and help our most needy.