Winter homeless shelter closes after busy season

Officials with the organization hand out tents to those that don’t have a place to go.

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Participants brave the rain for a two-mile walk in support of homeless Islanders.

Harbor Homes’ winter shelter is forced to close its doors every spring because it doesn’t have the resources or capacity to house guests for the summer months. 

From now until November, Islanders facing housing insecurity must hope to get employee housing, or find a place to crash.

And with the shelter closing, they are also provided with tents. Dorie Godfrey, secretary of the board of directors at Harbor Homes, says that many will likely stay in the State Forest.

Before shutting their doors on Saturday, Harbor Homes — a nonprofit providing solutions to homelessness on the Island — hosted an open house for the shelter, and held a two-mile walk, a part of their challenge to Islanders to walk 365 miles in the shoes of the homeless community. About two dozen people attended the event, and it was their largest number of participants on the monthly walk to date.

The event and open house were intended to raise awareness for the struggles that many Islanders face with housing insecurity, and the need for a permanent, potentially year-round, facility. 

“Just remember, when we close these doors, we’re all going home to someplace warm, but our guests are not,” said Lisa Belcastro, director of the winter shelter, holding back tears. “When you tell people versus when you see it, it’s a different story.”

Open from Nov. 1 to April 20, the shelter is one of three Harbor Home facilities, but it’s the only one able to house people every night, at no cost to guests. Harbor Homes also has a program in the off-season that provides emergency shelter to homeless individuals and families who suddenly lose housing, in partnership with local motels and hotels.

Over this winter, the shelter hit capacity or close to capacity most nights. Belcastro even took out one of the dining room tables at the shelter to squeeze in three more cots. “We hit 20 guests, but we never hit 21,” said Lisa Belcastro, winter shelter director. “We never had to turn anyone away.”

The winter shelter now has a temporary building at the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services campus. Community Services rents the land from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee, but owns the buildings. With two landlords, Harbor Homes has a contract with both organizations, and is governed by school committee rules.

Harbor Homes has been welcomed back by Community Services for the 2024–25 winter season, but it will be their last year there, as the building is scheduled for demolition. 

Meanwhile, Belcastro has been in search of a permanent spot for years. Their non-negotiables for a new building: a place for women, a place for men, a kitchen, and a social space, and their state grant requires that the facility house 25 guests and staff. Showers, an oven, and laundry facilities would be huge, said Belcastro.

“Hopefully, in the next few months, we’ll find a building to rent or buy and use as a winter shelter for seven months, and we can lease it to another nonprofit for summer workers,” said Belcastro. 

The larger hope is that Harbor Homes can support a shelter year-round.

Even if Belcastro can find a building that fits the criteria, there are the possibility of more hurdles to jump. Last year, Harbor Homes entered into a contract to acquire 21 Hudson Ave. in Oak Bluffs, but due to sentiment from neighbors, decided to abandon that effort and look elsewhere.

They faced a lot of “not in my backyard” pushback and a distorted view of the homeless, said Godfrey.

A seasonal Island creates its own financial concerns, said Belcastro. Everyone has to make enough money in the summer, because jobs disappear in the winter months. 

“You see the beauty of the Island when you walk down Main Street in Edgartown. You see the opulence. It takes someone to really pause to see how the average person lives, and they sure as heck can’t imagine the homeless,” said Belcastro. “How are they going to see that their server at a restaurant is couch-surfing because their rental ended June 1st?”

Godfrey has friends who visit and can’t believe the Island has schools, let alone people experiencing homelessness. 

Any affordable housing on the Island isn’t built for the economic demographic of those who stay at the winter shelter, said Godfrey. “They came to the Island to work, which used to be doable, and then affording a room became unaffordable,” she said.

Over the winter, guests arrive between 6 pm and 7 pm, and are housed through the night, with dinner and breakfast included. “When you’re at 18 people, and the 6:50 pm bus hasn’t stopped yet, you’re just holding your breath until 7:01 pm,” said Belcastro.

The clergy on the Island originally noticed the number of homeless, and asked the community to help solve the problem, said Godfrey. At first, the shelter moved from local church to local church. 

Godfrey became involved when one of the clergy asked parishioners if anyone knew how to use the software SignUpGenius, and she raised her hand. 

“What’s so unique about the Vineyard is that you can sit down at the harbor in Edgartown, and to your right will be a CEO of a company in shorts and a sweatshirt, and to your left will be a homeless person, and yet we all look the same,” said Godfrey.

With the winter shelter closed, Harbor Homes will support those facing housing insecurity in ways they can. Through restaurant donations, dinners are provided a few times a month, and once a week through the summer, the team provides lunch, laundry, and showers at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown. Team members also do continued outreach to guests.

Most of the winter shelter’s guests came for an extended period of time. 

“As soon as a bed was free, someone was in it,” said Belcastro. “Fifteen of the guests on Friday were there almost every single night.”

7 COMMENTS

  1. Wouldn’t it be great if we mustered our resources to help these people recover from the problems that create this condition rather than provide a situation that helps to further it? Anyone who is familiar with the homeless knows the issues involved and it’s not solved by more “affordable housing”.

    • What are the problems?
      What are the resources?
      How does “affordable housing” increase homelessness?
      Who are the people who are familiar?

      • I am a person familiar with the problem Albert. Overwhelmingly homeless people need mental health and substance abuse help. If we want to be compassionate that should be our focus. Warehousing people with these problems is not compassion.

        • Are you a professional?
          How many people have have you assisted with mental health and substance abuse issues?
          First hand knowledge?
          Familiar?
          I am old enough to remember when America was great.
          We warehoused the mentally ill.
          What a clever idea, keep them out of sight.

          These people will be housed.
          Mental health hospitals (AKA looney bins), and prisons are very expensive.
          How do you suggest funding your policy suggestions?

  2. This organization offers an excellent needed service but I would hope they offer some level of job fairs etc for their residents & not just tents as a next step out of homelessness

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