The Vineyard’s winter homeless shelter is moving to the first floor of the former early childhood building at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services in Oak Bluffs, following a unanimous vote by the regional high school committee Monday night.

With temperatures dropping to the single digits this week and more frigid temperatures forecast for the weekend, the vote clears the way just in time for Harbor Homes, which manages the overnight shelters, to operate a single facility that can accommodate more people than the current patchwork of rooms at three Edgartown churches.

“These spaces are too small,” shelter manager Lisa Belcastro told the committee. “We’re maxing out.”

The winter shelters began in 2016, first as Hospitality Homes then as Houses of Grace. Prior to that there were no shelters on the Island. Island clergy came together to replicate a program first started on the Cape, and alternated nights hosting the shelter throughout the winter, complete with dinner and breakfast.

The shelters continue to be staffed largely by trained volunteers, many of whom stay overnight at the shelters a few times a week providing help and supervision.

The agreement between Harbor Homes and MVCS, which operates on high school-owned land, allows the building to host up to 20 people — including shelter staff — nightly through March 31.

Ms. Belcastro said the shelter should be ready by this weekend. — Kevin Hooks

Speaking with the Gazette, Ms. Belcastro said the shelter has 17 registered members, while the churches can only hold about 10 at a time due to social distancing requirements.

While no one has yet been turned away due to capacity, she said, it can be a nail-biter for staff when the shelter is already full before the 7 p.m. check-in deadline.

“This new space is amazing and it is huge and it’s great,” Ms. Belcastro said. She is aiming to have it opened for guests this weekend, but said Wednesday there’s still work to be done at the new site, including hard-wiring the fire and security alarm systems and moving bedding from the Federated, St. Andrew’s and Old Whaling churches.

Registered guests have already been notified of the upcoming move, she said, and signs at the churches will direct anyone who’s unaware of the new location.

On Monday, school committee members grilled Ms. Belcastro and MVCS chief executive Beth Folcarelli on their plans for the shelter and particularly the nature of its homeless guests.

In answer to a question from committee member Kimberly Kirk regarding the potential of hosting sex offenders, Ms. Belcastro said local police are aware of who is sheltering with Harbor Homes.

“If we had a sex offender, we would have been notified,” she said.

As to other behavioral concerns, Ms. Belcastro noted that although overnight shelter guests tend to have “dual diagnoses,” so do many of the clients who come by day to the MVCS counseling center and other services.

While police have been called to the shelters on multiple occasions over her more than six years of experience, Ms. Belcastro added, none have involved violence.

“We have not had a violence or disturbance call,” she said. “The most times I’ve called police is for P.C., protective custody,” she added, explaining that when a shelter guest insists on leaving during the night while it is extremely cold, staff may ask police to pick them up so they don’t freeze.

The most recent calls to police, Ms. Belcastro said, have been on three occasions to remove a persistent would-be guest from the Cape, who is so mentally ill that the shelter can’t accommodate him safely.

“He usually comes here when he leaves a facility,” she said. “He was still wearing his hospital bracelet when he showed up at the shelter [last time].”

Oak Bluffs officials are supportive of the shelter move, Ms. Belcastro told the Gazette.

“We have a great relationship with Oak Bluffs police department,” she said.

Except while sleeping, shelter guests will be under supervision throughout their nightly stays, beginning as soon as they arrive on the MVCS campus, Ms. Folcarelli told the school committee Monday.

“They have a very short window of time between getting health clearance to [entering] the building,” she said. “There’s at least two staff people supervising on the campus.”

Ms. Folcarelli also said the shelter arrangement is for this year only, with no intention to return in 2023.

Office space on the building’s second story is being used to relieve overcrowding elsewhere at MVCS, where some offices hold three and four people, she said. The agency is also embarked on a large-scale capital campaign to modernize the campus.

Responding to a question from committee member Skipper Manter about shelter guests having marijuana, Ms. Belcastro said all smoking materials are confiscated for the night, along with other legal possessions such as pocket knives and alcohol.

“We check their bags,” she said.

High school principal Sara Dingledy was unopposed to the shelter plan, but clarified that the school’s personnel does not supervise any comings and goings on its tenant properties across the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

“We are fairly distant from who’s in and out of the Y [and] who’s in and out of the ice rink,” Ms. Dingledy said.

The school committee voted to amend the agreement so that school superintendant Dr. Matthew D’Andrea may close the shelter immediately if, in Mr. Manter’s words, something “outrageous and to the detriment of the community” should occur there.

The superintendent then would have 24 hours to post a school committee meeting on whether to reopen the shelter.

Although the Edgartown churches will no longer be hosting overnight guests, Ms. Belcastro said that St. Andrew’s parish house will be open as a warming shelter from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, serving lunch and providing laundry and shower facilities.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the day warming center is located at Good Shepherd Parish on Oak Bluffs, which offers lunch but not laundry and showers, she said.

Many of the shelter guests’ other needs have been provided by Island community donations, Ms. Belcastro said.

“We have all the socks and gloves and hats that we need [and] all the winter coats that we need,” she said. Linens are also in good supply, and all the registered guests have been furnished with VTA bus passes.

One donation that’s always welcome, Ms. Belcastro said, is new, single-size air mattresses. Used mattresses tend not to hold their air, she said.

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