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ON ISLAND

Yes, There Are People on Martha's Vineyard Without a Place to Live

By Lisa C. Belcastro

I still can’t believe you have homeless people on Martha’s Vineyard,” a friend’s boyfriend said to me at an off-Island event.  

I hear that often, as a statement or a question. Mostly from off-Island friends, visitors, or summer people.  

I get it. People think of Martha’s Vineyard and think of presidents and celebrities and fancy summer homes. There is a bit of truth to that image.

Not the whole truth, though. Not even close. Just a bit.

Islanders, however, are all too familiar with the housing crisis: limited affordable houses, the Vineyard shuffle, the lack of summer rentals for seasonal employees, and the struggle to find a year-round rental when paying a mortgage is out of the question. The housing crisis is real, and It’s not going away any time soon.

Beyond the housing crisis is another level of housing insecurity – people unable to work due to illness or disability, people who lose housing when their summer job ends for the winter season, people on the path of recovery who may have lost jobs, families, homes and want a new start, or the chronically homeless.  

Our Island has all of the above. For years, decades even, we’ve had people staying in cars, camping in the woods, sleeping on beaches, or finding any spot they can to get through a night. Not so bad in summer. Miserable, potentially life-threatening, in winter.

Eight years ago, a group of people came together as volunteers to create an overnight 12-hour shelter called Hospitality Homes. The shelter ran from January 1 through March 31. We were housed in three Island churches: four nights at St. Andrews in Edgartown, two nights at the Federated Church in Edgartown, and Wednesday nights at St. Augustine’s in Vineyard Haven. Dinners were donated each night by the church who was serving Community Suppers that night. Breakfast was cooked on site from food donated by The Food Bank.  

Hospitality Homes became Houses of Grace, a name-change only.  For five years, the overnight shelter operated from three churches with a staff of volunteers who knew how to use SignUp Genius to choose what night and what shift they wanted to serve on. Some folks loved volunteering for the dinner shift, or early shift. Others loved the overnight shift and being able to “sleep” on the job.  

Grace was abundant. Laughter flowed like waves on the shore. Friends were made. The winter shelter worked. People came in from the cold. Lives were saved.  

All were welcome into Houses of Grace as long as an individual could follow the rules and guidelines of behavior.  Volunteers and guests represented all walks of life, a community within a community. I was blessed to be one of those volunteers during the first five years.

Then COVID hit in March 2020. The churches were forced to close. The shelter was in jeopardy. Where would we find a space big enough that would welcome all – for free? Truth is, we didn’t find a free space.

Denise Schepici, CEO of MV Hospital, orchestrated a solution, finding COVID grant money to fund the shelter. With the introduction of money, Houses of Grace needed a fiscal agent. Money had not really been a part of our day-to-day business before. The logic choice, the best choice, was Harbor Homes MV, the Island non-profit that provides “homeless prevention programs and services that address the housing needs of low-income program participants.”

Harbor Homes rented The Whaling Church from November 2020 through March 2021. We offered paid and volunteer positions. An amazing team of compassionate and generous people came together to care for those in need.  

If you haven’t heard me rave about my staff yet, let me share with you now; I truly have the best staff on the planet! It takes a village to run a winter shelter, or about three dozen people for our shelter. I am blessed to see love in action every day the shelter is open. And the staff, eighty percent of whom are volunteers, come back year after year. I only have two new volunteers this year. The Islanders who serve at the shelter not only give love, but they love what they do. Like I said, best people on the planet!

As I type this piece, the winter shelter has been open a few days. We already have twelve registered guests. We are allowed up to 18 guests and two staff staying overnight at the old early childhood building on Martha’s Vineyard Community Services campus. With more than three and a half months left in the shelter season, you’ve probably already figured out that we could max out.  

Last week, we got some amazing news – a state grant that is renewable for another nine years. The grant, a little more than $250,000 per year, will allow Harbor Homes to buy a building or secure a long-term lease for a space that can accommodate up to twenty-five people. Harbor Homes has served 125 individuals in 2022. Imagine 25 of those in need securing a year-round room.

This is huge! It’s amazing! It’s potentially life-changing for those in need. Stability and hope. My heart swells thinking about it.

If you’d like to learn more about the shelter or Harbor Homes of MV, please visit the website: harborhomesmv.com.

If you’d like to volunteer at the shelter, please call me – 508-560-3678. I occasion-ally have sub positions when a staff member takes a vacation. You’ll meet some amazing people and discover your heart feels fuller when you finish your shift.