With little fanfare, Martha’s Vineyard clergy and congregations are working daily to feed and shelter vulnerable members of the Island’s year-round community. A decades-long winter tradition of nightly community suppers in parish halls resumed this week, and for the second year in a row there is a church-based shelter open every night through March.
Organizers of the long-running free suppers have joined forces with the shelter host churches to provide overnight guests with dinner and breakfast as well as a warm, safe place to sleep. This year, some churches have added “warming center” hours during the day as well, opening their doors and offering hot drinks.
“We’re here to take care of people,” said the Rev. Vincent (Chip) Seadale of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, which opens its parish house to the homeless four nights a week as part of a network called Houses of Grace Island Winter Shelter. Before 2016, the closest shelter was in Hyannis.
Known in its first year as Hospitality Homes, Houses of Grace is a collaboration between Island clergy of different faiths who had been helping individual parishioners in need. In a series of informal but regular meetings, the pastors agreed they needed a system that would serve homeless Islanders regardless of church affiliation.
“We had to do something,” said the Rev. Cathlin Baker of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. “There’s no governmental public response to these issues.”
Putting the matter before their congregations, the pastors found close to 100 enthusiastic volunteers, Reverend Seadale said. The Vineyard’s first community shelter for the homeless opened its doors at St. Andrew’s on Jan. 1, 2016.
“The first year was wonderful,” Reverend Seadale said. “We had six to eight people a night after the first 10 days.”
The first two nights of 2017 brought three “very familiar” faces to Houses of Grace, Reverend Seadale said, and he expects more people to come in from the cold as snow is predicted for the weekend.
Each shelter evening begins with a meal from that night’s community supper held at another church. On Mondays, St. Andrew’s runs food across town to the Federated Church. In turn, the Federated Church provides a meal for the shelter at St. Andrew’s on Tuesdays.
On Wednesdays, St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Vineyard Haven gets a delivery from the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, where Marjorie Peirce is the food coordinator for both the community suppers and Houses of Grace. “This is the foodmobile,” Ms. Peirce said on Wednesday afternoon, as she pulled a bag of sausage patties and a box of disposable dinnerware out of her Subaru station wagon parked on Music street. The vehicle is usually packed with groceries, many of them donated: poultry from Cronig’s, bread from the Black Dog, vegetables gleaned from local farms. “I bought it to haul food around,” Ms. Peirce says of her car. “Look at these beautiful onions Morning Glory gave us.” The evening’s menu at the congregational church was turkey pot pie with biscuit topping, roasted vegetables, fresh coleslaw, green salad with strawberries and fresh bread. There’s always some macaroni and cheese for picky eaters, and people bring desserts and other dishes to share, Ms. Peirce said.
After her team of about a dozen volunteers prepared and served the meal to more than 30 guests, it was time to send supper down to Vineyard Haven. Laura Gliga had the task of delivering a tray of pot pies, a bowl of slaw and a cake to the parish hall at St. Augustine’s, where a buffet with juice, water and fruit was set up for volunteers and overnight guests. Breakfast for the morning was stored in the church kitchen nearby. An artificial Christmas tree remained by the wall near the stage and tinsel garland was wrapped around the pillars in the roomy hall. At the door, Melissa St. John, volunteer coordinator for Houses of Grace this week, eyed the steep stairs leading to the street-level entrance above and wondered if an under-the-influence guest might take a tumble on his or her way in. Being drunk or on drugs is no barrier to admission. Houses of Grace is what’s called a “wet shelter,” as opposed to facilities that accept only sober guests.
“It’s a wet shelter as long as they behave,” said Reverend Seadale, adding that guests are required to empty their pockets and check their bags for the night to prevent clandestine use of alcohol and illegal drugs. Ms. St. John said she’s seen some of last year’s “wet” guests mend their ways and move on, while others are returning.
“The ones that wanted to stay wet, they’re back this year,” she said.
Smokers must stay in the light and away from bushes and other hiding places where a bottle might be stashed.
The shelters also require guests to take all their belongings with them when they leave at 7 a.m. One regular customer has been agitating for daytime storage, Ms. St. John said, but the shelters aren’t there to provide an alternative to housing for the chronically homeless. “If they get too comfortable, it doesn’t push them toward social services,” she said.
Yet outside the faith community, services for the homeless on Martha’s Vineyard are sharply limited. The Dukes County associate commissioner for the homeless is a volunteer post with a $1,000 annual budget, and although state lawmakers funded Island-based housing counselor Karen Tewhey’s part-time position last year, Gov. Charlie Baker recently eliminated that earmark. Ms. Tewhey’s work is now being deficit-funded by the Housing Assistance Corporation of Cape Cod, she said, and the United Way has donated some money to put homeless Island families in hotel rooms.
Ms. Tewhey had recently relocated to the Island when she took on the job. Much of her work has involved getting a handle on how many Vineyarders are homeless and who they are.
“The homeless issue on the Island is a subset of the larger housing crisis, and you can’t really divorce one from the other,” Ms. Tewhey said. “There’s a very low incidence of individuals with complex health or mental health concerns. But because there is such an incredible lack of rental housing, there is a work force that is constantly at risk of being homeless.”
Vineyarders lacking housing can’t just move off-Island and start over, she added.
“Their roots are on the Island and they have no connection with the mainland. Their health and mental health providers are here. Their social networks are here. They grew up here. They have no resources. They are not in a position to go off-Island and make connections. We are trying to provide them at least with food and shelter.”
To that end, Ms. Tewhey crowned her initial year as the Vineyard’s first housing counselor by securing an $81,000 HUD grant to lease a building for what she called “a permanent supportive house” for seven or eight adult men. It’s the first federal money to be aimed directly at the Island’s homeless crisis and while the dollar amount is small by Vineyard housing standards, Ms. Tewhey expects to supplement it with additional grants and private donations.
When it opens, the supportive house will take some of the burden off the faith community, but not all of it as there will still be Islanders in need of shelter. Ms. Tewhey reported 33 homeless individuals, including a family of seven, in the first six months of 2016. From July to December, she found 10 homeless individuals and two homeless families, as well as 18 individuals and seven families at risk of homelessness.
“That’s probably an underestimate on the families,” she said, because some parents may be couch-surfing while their children stay with relatives.
So even with some federal help, Houses of Grace will remain a serious commitment for the churches, which are using their own money to fund most of the program. Reverend Seadale said that in addition to staffing four volunteer shifts a night, seven nights a week, shelter hosts must meet fire and safety rules that required them to install costly carbon monoxide detectors in their facilities and invest in an automatic defibrillator that must be on hand during shelter nights.
St. Andrew’s is going even farther. Reverend Seadale is planning a $250,000 project that will finish the parish house basement as a “homeless-friendly” shelter with bathrooms, a shower, laundry facilities and separate sleeping rooms for men and women.
Training sessions for shelter volunteers are held about once a month, Reverend Seadale said, with the next session this Sunday, Jan. 8, from 2 p.m. to about 3:15 p.m. at the St. Andrew’s Parish Hall. Volunteers work in two shifts: 6:30 to 9 p.m. and 8:30 to 7 a.m.
“We go through everything,” Reverend Seadale said.
And while the church-based program appears to be working well, Reverend Baker would like to see other agencies — including the government — lend a hand as well.
“This is a totally private solution,” she said. “There really should be a public response.”
Houses of Grace Winter Shelter Program
Saturday: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 51 Winter street, Edgartown, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Free. 508-693-0103.
Sunday: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 51 Winter street, Edgartown, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Free. 508-693-0103.
Monday: Federated Church, 45 South Summer street, Edgartown, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Free. 508-627-4662.
Tuesday: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 51 Winter street, Edgartown, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Free. 508-693-0103.
Wednesday: St. Augustine’s Church, 56 Franklin street, Vineyard Haven, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Free. 508-693-0103.
Thursday: Federated Church, 45 South Summer street, Edgartown, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Free. 508-627-4662.
Friday: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 51 Winter street, Edgartown, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Free. 508-693-0103.
Saturday: Community Supper, Trinity Worship Center, 40 Trinity Park, Oak Bluffs, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Free. 508-693-4424.
Sunday: Community Luncheon, salad, lasagna, garlic bread, beverage and something sweet. Federated Church, 45 South Summer street, Edgartown, 12:30 to 2 p.m. Free. federatedchurchmv.org, 508-627-4421.
Monday: Community Supper, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 51 Winter street, Edgartown, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Free. 508-693-4424.
Tuesday: Community Supper, warm food and company. Chilmark Community Church, 9 Menemsha Crossroad, Chilmark, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Free. chilmarkchurch.org, 508-645-3100.
Wednesday: Community Suppers, side dishes are accepted, but not required. First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, 1051 State Road, West Tisbury, 5:30 p.m. Free. wtcongregationalchurch.org, 508-221-0314.
Thursday: Community Suppers, St. Augustine’s Church, 56 Franklin street, Vineyard Haven, 5 to 6:30 p.m. Free. 508-693-0131.
Friday: Grace Episcopal Church Community Suppers, (Note: Due to construction in church kitchen, suppers currently held at Baptist Church parish hall, corner of William and Spring streets, Vineyard Haven), 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Free. 508-693-0332.