One of the pleasures of a thick snowstorm with heavy winds and frigid temperatures is coming in out of the cold to a snug house, a cup of hot cocoa and a warm fire. For some the preference is to not go out at all and embrace the day by lying on the couch and looking out the window from under a thick blanket.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to enjoy winter at arm’s length. As reported in the last edition of the Gazette, there are approximately one hundred and sixty homeless people on the Vineyard. Another annual count takes place on January thirtieth and if the recent trend continues, this number will most likely rise.
In a city, homelessness is visible on the streets or subway stations and the sight of someone carrying their entire world on their back is frighteningly common. The issue there is one of anonymity — faces with no names amid the teeming urban populace.
In a rural setting, however, there is rarely a public visual to offset the beautiful snow drifts or children racing down a sledding hill. Those without adequate housing do not advertise their plight. Instead, on cold nights they continue to exist on the margins, finding shelter where they can, if at all, on friends’ couches, in abandoned cars or buses or pitching tents in the woods. This makes the problem seem almost nonexistent. What is frightening here is how such a serious problem can be so invisible.
Perhaps this is why homeless advocates on the Island seem to consist mostly of volunteers. Why put money toward a problem that may be easy to ignore?
Connie Teixeira, the associate county commissioner for the homeless, works as a volunteer, and Island clergy, whose congregations represent a cross section of the community, also volunteer their time and resources to help. Church community suppers, which provide a free meal and warm place to hang a hat for a few hours each evening during the winter, are also volunteer programs, as is the Island Food Pantry.
What is required, however, to address this growing problem is a more concrete plan with real resources to implement it. In the short term, some form of transitional housing is urgently needed for people who are in crisis with no roof over their head. Currently there is no housing at all on the Island for emergency situations; people are either sent to Cape Cod or in isolated instances housed in a motel for one night at a time. Ms. Teixeira’s entire annual allotment from the state for motel vouchers is a thousand dollars, which is not much to go on even when stretched.
In the longer term, a complete safety net of social services with sustainable funding is needed to address the growing problem of homelessness on the Island.
On Wednesday this week, Ms. Teixeira was expected to present her case at a meeting with county commissioners to ask them for help in petitioning the towns to address this pressing matter. Ironically, the meeting had to be rescheduled due to the snowstorm, as anyone with a home chose to stay there where it was safe and warm.
The meeting has been rescheduled to take place next week. Hopefully, the two snowstorms we have had this winter and the bitter temperatures this week will help illuminate an issue that has for too long been kept in the dark. There are no easy solutions to the issue of homelessness.
Jobs and affordable housing are important engines and yet for the most vulnerable these may never be a possibility. At the least, we need to ensure a warm bed on a freezing night.