Vineyard winter shelter looking to expand

The request comes after an unprecedented demand over the winter.

Oak Bluffs officials have some concerns about the shelter's location. —MV Times

After a significant increase in the number of guests this past winter, representatives of the Harbor Homes nonprofit want to add five new beds to their winter overnight homeless shelter in Oak Bluffs. 

The program will need approval from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee, which leases the shelter’s land.

Before signing off on the request, committee members want to consult with Oak Bluffs officials who have voiced concerns about the program in the past.

Winter shelter coordinator Lisa Belcastro was before the school committee on Monday. She told committee members that a record 54 individual guests were sheltered this past winter. This does not mean 54 guests stayed over on the same night; Belcastro said the shelter reached its 20-person limit multiple times, although they never had to turn anyone away.

Adding beds and two more overnight staff would address a rising need, Belcastro said. She added that two winters ago, a then-record 32 individual guests were sheltered. And this past winter, 32 of the season’s 54 guests were first-timers.

Harbor Homes’ winter program currently runs November to April in a building on the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) campus near the high school, known as Building A. MVCS owns the building, but rents the land from the high school committee, which has a 99-year lease.

On Monday the committee approved Building A’s 2024–25 lease with Community Services, but has yet to approve the request for additional beds.

Committee member Skip Manter said Monday that the committee should consult officials first. “At this time last year,” he said, “we had some public officials from Oak Bluffs concerned about this [shelter] being here. And I feel uncomfortable voting this without their input.”

Oak Bluffs town administrator Deb Potter outlined concerns in a written statement on Monday. 

“Our position, which has been firmly established over the past two years, remains unchanged,” she wrote. “It is the collective position of the Oak Bluffs Police Department and town that this location is not optimally suited for the intended purpose.”

Town Police Chief Jonathan Searle says the school committee has received reports of past behavioral incidents involving guests sheltered at Building A: “What we’ve done in years past is we’ve provided [the committee] with public, documented reports of incidents that had occurred in and around the homeless shelter.”

Searle did tell The Times that the shelter’s past season was successful, and that the program provides important work. 

“This past year I would say that they had a very good year, with minimal incidents. The incidents weren’t necessarily anything criminal in nature,” he said. “Certainly it wasn’t a burden on emergency services this past year.”

Belcastro said on Monday that no behavior-related calls were made to police this past winter shelter season.

Belcastro also said that if Harbor Homes exceeds capacity next winter, it can direct guests to its hotel respite program, which houses people in motels or hotels along the public bus line, near convenience stores and the hospital.


  1. I think the Times missed the comment at the meeting that the Police were called to the shelter exactly 0 times this last season for incidents related to guests. The paramedics were called 8 times for medical issues. Whether or not the shelter were there the paramedics would have been called more than 8 times around the island if these people were freezing outside over the winter. So the burden on services in the towns is actually less than it would be if the shelter were not there.

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