Lisa Belcastro stands in an old preschool classroom filled with four hospital-grade cots. The yellow cubbies lining the wall are bare, except for the names of the women who now sleep in the room each night. 

Until a few days ago, the room had been filled with donated goods and furniture, said Ms. Belcastro, the shelter coordinator of Harbor Homes, the only overnight winter shelter on Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s amazing how quickly this happened.”

Facing an increase in visitors, the Island nonprofit has had to expand its shelter, turning what had been a storage room for Chicken Alley in the former Martha’s Vineyard Community Services early education center into a new women’s dormitory. Just one month into its season, the winter shelter has hit capacity three times already, the first time in its history space has been such a concern.

Beds are moved into the Harbor Homes dining room at night, an indication of the organization's space crunch. — Ray Ewing

“We’ve never been this full,” Ms. Belcastro said Wednesday. “And it hasn’t even gotten very cold yet.”

Currently, Harbor Homes operates a temporary winter shelter through a lease with Community Services, capping attendees at 20 guests and two volunteer staff. The added space did not increase the total number of guests the shelter can take in, Ms. Belcastro said, but it does give the existing guests some breathing room. 

“We haven’t had to turn anyone away yet, but I’m very concerned that that might not be the case by the end of this year,” Ms. Belcastro said.

Last winter, Ms. Belcastro said the shelter maxed out at 14 guests only a couple times throughout the season. This year, since opening on Nov. 1, she said the shelter routinely sees up to 18 guests, with volunteers often having to break down tables in the dining room to accommodate the extra cots. Of the roughly 30 registered guests, only five had been to the shelter in previous years. 

“Everyone else is new this year,” she said. “I have never seen that before.” 

Martha’s Vineyard’s homeless population has always been difficult to quantify, given how few people seek help and the number of people and families in unstable or substandard housing. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s latest estimate puts the year-round homeless population at about 33 people. Last winter, Ms. Belcastro said the shelter accommodated 38 registered guests, although not every guest returned on a regular basis.

While the number of people seeking shelter has increased, Ms. Belcastro said the demographic makeup has also changed. This year, the vast majority of guests work full-time on the Island.

“They get up, they go to work, they finish work, and they come home [here],” Ms. Belcastro said. “They need this place. This is replacing housing.” 

The shelter has always seen more men than women, she added, partly because of the fact that the temporary shelter can’t accommodate families with its dormitory-style layout. In past years, Harbor Homes has partnered with local hotels and motels to give families temporary housing, but this year the organization has had trouble finding enough partners to keep up with increasing demand. 

Demand may continue to increase deeper into the winter. Two weeks ago, the Oak Bluffs select board voted to close its harbor to winter moorings, for some a temporary source of shelter. Tisbury is considering doing the same. While it’s too early to tell whether the decision will have a spillover effect into the shelter, Ms. Belcastro said it is “definitely a concern.”

All the while, Harbor Homes is still searching for a permanent shelter. The nonprofit first looked to the market last year after receiving a $2.5 million grant and in September, planned to buy a six-bedroom dormitory on Hudson avenue in Oak Bluffs. In order to go through with the sale, the nonprofit had to receive a special permit from the Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals, which referred the application to the MVC. 

In the face of neighborhood backlash and anticipating a lengthy review process, Harbor Homes pulled out of the sale in October and has gone back to square one. 

“Everything is an exploration,” Harbor Homes new executive director Kristin Leutz said of the current search. 

Unable to continue operating in the Community Services space after this winter, Ms. Leutz said the organization is looking into rental opportunities for next season should a permanent shelter not come to fruition in time. The goal, she said, is to have at least 25 beds to keep pace with growing demand – ideally a space that could accommodate families or survivors of domestic abuse, a need that has yet to be filled on the Island. 

Ms. Belcastro said the need is much greater.

“In fantasy land? . . . I would love to have a place with 50 units,” she said. “It would be full.” 

In line with those goals, Ms. Leutz also hopes to reinvigorate the organization’s community outreach and education. Over the next several weeks, the nonprofit will host Oak Bluffs elementary school students for a tour of the empty shelter space. 

“It’s a great way for people to understand what our guests are going through…and hopefully have a little bit of empathy, too,” Ms. Leutz said.