Like most Vineyarders, Connie Teixeira had not given much thought to the specter of homelessness on the Island. Then, this year, she found herself looking the reality of it in the face, day after day at the Tisbury Senior Center.
“We have a gentleman who comes and spends most of the day at the senior center, he has lunch in the senior program, and then he goes to the library until it closes, and from there he goes to wherever he can find a place to sleep, and stays there until they find out he’s there and they put him out,” she said.
“He’s a very nice person, he just needs a place to go.”
She set out to learn more, and last Tuesday, Ms. Teixeira shared what she’s learned with the Tisbury selectmen.
She said she learned that despite all the affordable housing and other laudable programs directed at helping the Island’s medium and low income earners, for those in the direst need, there was little help.
“There’s nothing for the people who need a place tonight,” she told them.
During the day, she said, the homeless of Vineyard Haven might warm themselves early at the Thrift Shop, which opens early. They might get a cup of coffee free from the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, which puts it out in the lobby for customers. Then they might go to the senior center or the library, or maybe clean up at the Steamship Authority terminal bathrooms, or ride the park and ride bus for warmth.
“Then comes the night,” she said.
There were, she reckoned, at least six people living on the streets of Vineyard Haven, and maybe more. Given the current state of things, that number could well rise in the near future.
“The temperature’s dropping and it’s the week before Christmas,” she said.
What could be done about them? It used to be they could slip into the churches, she said, but insurance and other concerns ended that. Besides, both Grace and Federated churches had problems with homeless people in the past. The basement of the Catholic church had unfortunately been flooded with fuel.
And why should the responsibility all fall on the churches?
Ms. Teixeira’s suggestion: temporary accommodation at the Tisbury school gymnasium.
The selectmen, it appeared, had no better ideas, so they gave their blessing for her to approach the school. Other than that, they said, she should bring the issue before the next All-Island Selectmen’s meeting.
But, as she said later, that’s not until January. The snow is coming now.
“I want to see if we can at least give us the school over the Christmas holiday,” she said.
But the town police chief John Cashin said it is a hard problem, and fixing it might take awhile.
“On the Island people don’t think much about it. We talk about affordable housing and making accommodations for that. Yet there are people out there with no housing, and we don’t even realize it. And it’s not acceptable,” he said.
“We all know them from working the streets.”
The few homeless — he reckoned only a handful of them — were mostly a nuisance to police, because some had substance or mental health problems. Their crimes were mostly minor thefts or breaches of the peace.
“It’s easy enough to take them to the jail for a few hours and they sober up, but what about someone who hasn’t really done anything but fallen on hard times, or maybe has some mental illness that precludes them from leading a normal life?
“Our big fear is the cold weather coming. We don’t want anyone dying of exposure on the streets,” the chief said.
Or, for that matter, starting a fire while trying to get warm.
Chief Cashin said he had undertaken to help Ms. Teixeira if he could.
“But it certainly couldn’t be a two-person operation. We would need to get other people and other agencies involved,” he said, adding:
“It would be very appropriate to have Community Services or the health department, police, ambulance and probably Island counseling, maybe narcotics anonymous or AA.”
And then there was the problem of deciding for which homeless people Tisbury was responsible, lest the town wind up catering for other homeless people on the Island.
“You know what?” he said. “It’s a big problem.”
Others agree. Sandy Pratt, a manager at the Thrift Shop in town, said she opens the doors an hour early on cold days.
“We’re supposed to open at 9 a.m., but I’m here at 8, so if it’s cold, I let people in,” she said.
“A few people always come in within five minutes. You know, we’ve got to heat the place anyway, and they need a warm place to go.” She continued:
“The community really needs to know about this. Some of us do; here at the Thrift Shop, at the library, at the Steamship terminal, the bank. But most people don’t even know it exists here. We don’t have a shelter; we don’t even know how many they are, who they are, or how they are.”
Tom Bennett, associate executive director and senior clinical supervisor at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, said no agency is really responsible for the homeless.
“We will always take them on, on a case-by-case basis, when we hear about them,” he said.
A caseworker would usually try to sort out some accommodation, maybe with family or a friend of the homeless person.
“I’m hearing as well there are more people facing the prospect of homelessness, so I fear we will be facing more problems in the near future. Meanwhile, we’re having our funding cut by the state,” Mr. Bennett said.
As of yesterday, there appeared to have been some communications between the town and the school about Ms. Teixeira’s suggestion, but no indications yet of imminent actions, despite the impending snowstorm.
But if it doesn’t happen, it won’t be because of lack of action by Ms. Teixeira. She has lobbied selectmen, individually and collectively, talked to the school, talked to the police about providing supervision.
“One day we’re all going to be asked: ‘I was hungry, did you feed me; I was naked, did you clothe me; I was homeless, did you provide for me?’
“And at least I want to be able to say I tried,” she said.
Meanwhile, the other business of town government moves on. Tuesday’s meeting saw the swearing in of a new deputy fire chief, Russell Maciel, a member of the brigade since 1970, and one of a long line of Maciels to have served as firemen.
Indeed, for 40 consecutive years, fire chief John Schilling told the meeting, a Maciel had led the ladder company.
Russell Maciel’s leadership skills and “steady, even demeanor” would serve the brigade well, Mr. Schilling said.
The selectmen also appointed a new representative to the Steamship Authority port council: a former long-serving head of the finance committee, George Balco.
Mr. Balco was one of four candidates, including the incumbent in the job, former selectman Thomas Pachico.
The port council is an advisory body to the boat line that meets monthly, comprising one representative of each of the ports served by ferries, and weighing in on finance and budgetary issues.
Mr. Pachico had served the past six years and one of the three selectmen, Tristan Israel, favored reappointing him.
However, the other two members, Denys Wortman and Jeff Kristal, both backed Mr. Balco, for his strong background in finance.