Thanks to a grant of over $2.5 million spread out over 10 years, Harbor Homes of Martha’s Vineyard is in the market for a permanent emergency shelter to better serve the Island’s homeless population.

The grant is provided by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and consists of $257,488 doled out over 10 years and 3 months, a press release from Harbor Homes stated.

Karen Tewhey, Harbor Homes’ director of institutional advancement, confirmed the news in a phone call to the Gazette.

“This has been a priority to get a permanent facility on the Island so that all of our residents could be protected,” she said. “It’s nice to stop talking about something and start to actually do it.”

The Harbor Homes shelter currently operates out of a Martha’s Vineyard Community Services building from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., opening at the end of November and continuing through the end of March.

Because the space belongs to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, guests have to leave each morning, shelter coordinator Lisa Belcastro explained. Once they leave, staff must deflate air mattresses and pack up their equipment until the guests return that evening. The current space also doesn’t offer a stove, showers or laundry services, meaning guests have to travel to St. Andrew’s Parish House In Edgartown to access those facilities.

“We just want to be able to provide necessary services and not be scrambling,” Ms. Belcastro said.

With a permanent location, Ms. Belcastro hopes to be able to provide shelter services for up to six months of the year, if not year-round. The conditions of the grant limit the number of guests the shelter can serve at one time to 25, an increase from the current 18.

In the past year alone, Ms. Belcastro said that Harbor Homes has served 125 individuals.

“And those are just the ones asking us for help,” she said.

The current program also has limited options in the event of a daytime storm or blizzard, relying on special permission from a rotating list of resources with no reliable go-to option. Ms. Tewhey hopes that whatever permanent location the nonprofit ends up with could be combined with a warming center, giving individuals a one-stop location for the resources they need.

“I think the residents would feel much more secure that there’s a place for them in the community and that they’re welcome to be there,” Ms. Tewhey said. “It’s a nice message for the community to put out.”

Ms. Tewhey has worked with the Island’s homeless population since 2016, beginning with the pilot program Hospitality Homes, the Island’s first shelter which operated for three months each winter.

Earlier that year, Ms. Tewhey said, five individuals died due to health conditions exacerbated by homelessness.

“That was the same year the original shelter popped up,” she said. “It was limited, and at the time six years ago there was much more resistance to having a homeless shelter here.”

Hospitality Homes evolved into Houses of Grace, a network of churches and parish houses on the Island that provided temporary shelter. When the Covid-19 pandemic paused services out of health concerns, Harbor Homes of Martha’s Vineyard formed to fill in the gap, eventually hiring full-time staff members to supplement what had previously been an entirely volunteer-run effort. In addition to running the shelter each winter, Harbor Homes owns and manages two homes for low-income Islanders, offering affordable housing and support services.

The past two years, the winter shelter has operated out of building on the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services campus. But earlier this year, its very existence came into question after the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School board rescinded its approval of the shelter only to re-approve it a few weeks later (the regional high school owns the land where community services is located).

“We had to go before the school board and explain our position again,” said Susan Diverio, executive director of Harbor Homes. “There’s a lot of fear, a lot of stigma. Everyone wants to help but no one wants it in their backyard.”

Ms. Diverio joined the organization in June 2022, taking over the executive director position from Ms. Tewhey. Going forward, Ms. Diverio hopes to expand educational opportunities for the public to better understand housing insecurity and its effects on the Island community.

“The homeless population is increasing on the Island,” Ms. Diverio said. “People don’t realize what it looks’s a two-income family with children who still can’t afford housing. It’s a mom experiencing domestic violence trying to leave a bad situation....Once people get past [the stigma] and realize these are everyday people who have gotten in bad circumstances, you can get them to understand these people are a part of our community.”

Harbor Homes is currently in talks with a realtor and on the lookout for prospective properties, Ms. Tewhey said. The facility would need to be close to a bus line, and ideally in either Edgartown, Oak Bluffs or Vineyard Haven. Any property chosen would need to get town approval.

Additionally, any future facility would need multiple bathrooms, she said, one for each gender, in-unit laundry facilities, showers, a full kitchen and multiple bedrooms, although residents would likely share quarters with up to three other roommates as they do in the current shelter.

Harbor Homes has put together a subcommittee of staff, volunteers and board members to navigate the search process, but Ms. Diverio also encourages members of the public to share their suggestions.

“If there are facilities out there not being used or might be for sale, if people in the community know about them it would be helpful to let us know,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s like searching for a needle in a haystack.”

While Harbor Homes’ staff aren’t yet sure where the new facility will be, what it will look like or how soon it can start serving the Island, they share a sense of relief that the biggest hurdle is cleared.

“It will really change lives,” Ms. Belcastro said. “It will give someone a place they can call home.”